India woke up this morning to the smell of metal. Millions of craving Indians felt a sense of emancipation, at the first scent of a medal from the Olympics in Rio. Sakshi Malik, a 23 year old girl from Haryana delivered a much awaited medal through Repechage in the 58kg category of the Women’s Freestyle Wrestling event.
Women as torchbearers of sport in India
Sakshi’s grit and determination shone through in the early hours of Thursday, as she battled against the odds to score a remarkable triumph on the mat. She recovered from a stinging quarterfinal loss to eventual finalist Koblova Zholobowa, with Repechage victories over Mongolia’s Orkhon Purevdorj, and then Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova.
Sakshi’s victory in Rio is more than just a dreamy flight of glory from Rohtak to Rio. The lady from Mokhra village in Haryana endured ridicule and social stigma in a state renowned for its gender bias. Her coach Ishwar Dahiya, who has been training her since the age of 12, has suffered equally.
He has been ostracized by the communities around him, who were incensed by his steady efforts to train women wrestlers. It was not a game for girls, in the books of these insensitive honchos that rule the roost in Haryana’s intensely prejudiced society.
Even as Sakshi developed her skills, combating mostly with boys, her parents stood by her like pillars of strength.
Sudesh and Sukhbir Malik paved the way for several other girls in Haryana to take to the sport, through their endearing and spirited support of their daughter.
In the run up to the Olympics, Vinesh Phogat was considered a bigger chance at a medal. Sakshi’s victory, in the wake of a nasty knee injury to Phogat, underscores the significance of her achievement as an underdog.
Sakshi came from behind in most of her encounters in Brazil. She was done 0-4 in the qualification round before scoring a thrilling 5-4 victory. In the round of 16, she went down 0-3 before recovering and most impressively, recovered from a 0-5 deficit in the bronze medal match to post a sensational 8-5 victory.
Sakshi is only the fourth Indian woman to clinch an Olympic medal following in the footsteps of weightlifter Karnam Malleshwari (2000, Sydney), boxer MC Mary Kom and badminton player Saina Nehwal (2012, London).
Sakshi’s triumphant run in Rio underscores the emergence of women as torchbearers of sport in India. It is especially impressive considering the social milieu of the young athlete. P V Sindhu is in sizzling form too, offering hopes for another medal, perhaps even of better glitter.