In sport, women have been in the shadow of men also because of the all too familiar hurdles and obstacles they have to overcome in a generally patriarchal society. Right now, however, there is a lot of focus in India on the women achievers and why not? They deserve plaudits aplenty in fighting the odds and emerging triumphant, says Partab Ramchand
Women power in Indian sport is not exactly new. Since Independence, India has produced a few who have touched international standards but certainly there have not been as many as one would have liked. Generally, it is the men who have garnered most of the attention and there is little doubt that they have outnumbered the women as far as outstanding feats are concerned.
The fact remains that Indian sportswomen have frequently achieved greater feats then the sportsmen. Unfortunately, there has been a condescending attitude towards them from everyone associated with sport in the country, be it their male counterparts or the media, from officialdom to sponsors. What the average Indian sportsman goes through, the sportswoman probably has to go through much more to gain recognition and awards, money and opportunity. Despite all this, India has over the years produced sportswomen who have excelled at international meets, including on the biggest stage – the Olympics. In a number of disciplines in the quadrennial event, women have matched the men and in some cases even surpassed them.
India did produce some outstanding sportswomen in the 1950s and ‘60s but no one really made an impact at the international level. In her own way, Kamaljit Sandhu was a path breaker for she was the first Indian woman athlete to win a gold medal at the Asian Games. In Bangkok in 1970, she won the 400 metres and for some time was the most talked about sports personality in the nation. For a brief while in the late 1970s, Geeta Zutshi was the flag-bearer, winning the gold medal in the 800 m at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok.
But it was the arrival of P.T. Usha in the early 1980s that really put the spotlight on Indian women and what they could achieve. At the Asian level she was supreme, reaching her peak at the 1985 Asian Athletics Championship in Jakarta where she won six medals – five gold and one bronze. The number of medals is still a record for a single athlete in a single international meet. From 1983 to 1989, Usha garnered 13 gold medals at Asian track and field meets.
At the Asian Games in Seoul in 1986, Usha won four golds and one silver. But her biggest moment came in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. After winning her semifinal, Usha finished fourth in the final of the 400 m hurdles, missing the bronze medal by 1/100th of a second. She made the sports fan in the country really sit up and take notice of women athletes, particularly as their men counterparts were nowhere in the picture at international meets.
Things had to improve in matters concerning women’s sports now that inspirational figures had come on the scene. The media started highlighting their achievements, sponsors were willing to back Indian sportswomen and opportunities were more forthcoming. And in the late 1990s, shooter Roopa Unnikrishnan was added to the list of woman achievers when she won the gold medal and set a record in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, followed by a silver medal in the world shooting Grand Prix in Georgia later the same year.
However, it was not until the start of the New Millennium that Indian sportswomen started making their presence really felt at the international level. Karnam Malleswari set the ball rolling with a bronze in the weightlifting event at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Tennis star Sania Mirza was the next Indian sportswoman to make a mark. In 2003, she won the junior doubles title at Wimbledon. Though she could not make much headway in the singles events (her topmost ranking was 27th and the best achievements were winning one WTA title in her hometown of Hyderabad in 2005 and making the fourth round at the US Open the same year), she became one of the best doubles players in the world reaching the No. 1 ranking. With various partners in the women’s doubles and mixed doubles events she has won a number of ATP Tour titles including six Grand Slam titles three in women’s doubles and three in mixed doubles.
With Viswanathan Anand as an inspiration, could women chess players remain in the background? Several of them became international masters (IMs), and two Koneru Humpy and Dronavalli Harika became grand masters (GMs). Boxer Mary Kom joined the list of world renowned Indian sportswomen by winning the world amateur crown five times and being the only woman boxer to win a medal in each one of the six world championships she participated in.
In the second decade of the New Millennium, badminton has become the new force in Indian sport thanks to the feats of Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu. The very fact that Sindhu’s clash with Carolina Marin in the final of the women’s singles at the Rio Olympics last year was watched by a record number of people for a non-cricketing event underlined the growing interest of sports fans in India in events having Indian women.
Cementing the growing ability of Indian sportswomen to win laurels was Sakshi Malik finishing with a bronze in wrestling and Deepa Karmarkar taking fourth place in a tough field in gymnastics. About the same time Deepa Malik became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics when she clinched silver in the shot-put event in Rio.
This year, the upward trend has continued. At the Asian Athletic Championships held in Bhubaneswar, Indian women won six gold medals helping India to finish at the top of the medals table, pushing traditional powerhouse China to second spot. The Indian team won the SAFF football title, the Indian basketball team beat Kazakhstan 75-73 in a thriller of a final to climb to division A of the FIBA Asia Cup in Bangalore. And to bring further cheer came the heartwarming performance of the cricket team with the women finishing runners-up to England in a nailbiting final in the ICC World Cup at Lord’s. Verily the sky seems to be the limit for Indian sportswomen and it is time to say Chak de India! (Go for it, India!).
(The writer is a veteran sports journalist based in Chennai.)
October – December 2017