Rio 2016 made history for India. As our women Olympians took over, India sat up and watched, stunned. What was happening there?
Well, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Mallik snatched their wins at badminton and wrestling respectively; Dipa Karmakar did the death vault at gymnastics, and Aditi Ashok battled on at golf. These events that took place there made two huge changes to the country’s mindset here. One, cricket lost its position as the only game that unites the country. You only had to waggle your ears on Friday evening to hear all TV sets everywhere tuned to Sindhu’s match. And two, the women at this year’s Olympics proved that India’s sports future could lie very much in female hands.
“It really is heartening to see female athletes increase in strength,” says former cricketer and Rio commentator Suhail Chandhok. “A lot of the women who are in Rio need to be lauded for just their qualification. To make it to the Olympics takes years of consistent dedication, hard work and tireless commitment, knowing that you could still very easily miss the bus in getting there or miss a medal on the day.”
India has never lacked women athletes, but in a country where sports infrastructure barely exists, it’s never been easy for a woman to break through, particularly if she comes from a rural and / or poor background, with families and neighbours who believe that girls just don’t do sport. As Chandhok points out, we all know the big names: Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Sania Mirza. These are women who have been backed by their families, and whose families have a certain amount of wherewithal to ensure good training. But the fact that people like Dutee Chand and Sakshi Malik even made it to Rio speaks volumes about their determination to succeed against odds that in many other countries they perhaps would not have to face.
Whether they win or lose, the stories of these women are what Chandhok calls “magical”. And when they do well at sports that cricket-crazy India refuses to take notice of, small cracks begin to appear in that massive cricket wall that dams all other sports.
But is it cricket that India is interested in, or cricket played by Indian men? Gaurav Kalra, sports journalist and senior editor at ESPNcricinfo, believes it’s the latter.
“If you look at women athletes in India, we have so many success stories,” says Kalra. “We have Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, some of the shooters have done really well in the South Asian Games, the women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympic Games. In terms of that, the Indian women’s cricket team hasn’t quite had the same impact on our mindset.”
Kalra could be right – though the Indian women’s cricket team is nothing to sneer at in terms of performance either. Perhaps the fact is that when Malik or Karmakar face off against international athletes, they are doing so in sports that don’t already have a huge precedent attached to men such as Indian cricket. But Kalra is quite right when he says: “When sportspeople do well, it creates a certain enthusiasm for the sport. If the girls create history, create a bit of buzz, it will definitely influence other women.”
It’s a well-known fact that sports can emancipate and empower women. But Joy Chakravarty of Sport360 believes that sports do even more for women than simply raise their earning power and status in society. “The greatest thing about sports for women is that achievements are quantifiable and cannot be argued,” he explains. “There is little room to discriminate. Unlike in many other spheres in life, a 59 in golf by Annika Sorenstam is as good as a 59 by David Duval and Serena Williams’s seven Wimbledon titles are no better or worse than the seven titles won by Roger Federer.”
That’s the power sport has for women that few people in India have understood, except the women athletes themselves. Perhaps, between them, Sindhu, Malik, Karmakar and Ashok have put this point across to India once and for all, right now, at this moment when we’re all so high. And having done so, perhaps Chandhok’s dearest wish will be granted.
“To me every woman who is in Brazil at the moment should serve as an absolute inspiration to young India,” he says. “And push corporate India to look at the Olympic dream and not just the big ticket sports of our country like cricket.”