Updated: August 3, 2021 2:34:35 pm
India now has seven women with eight medals from the last 25 years at the Olympic Games, compared to the eight men and their nine medals. Seven of those women’s medals have come from London, Rio and the first week of Tokyo. PV Sindhu has tied the double Olympic medallist score with Sushil Kumar already. Winning the bronze, after her 2016 silver, the reigning World Champion would play no part in India’s fourth- place moping.
The women’s hockey team kept the mighty Australians at bay and reached the semifinals. Mirabai Chanu spent five years trying to keep her imbalanced feet steady when lifting 87kg in one snap motion. Lovlina Borgohain walked the front row of the opening ceremony, and stood tall, rangy and athletic in the ring. Bhavani Devi made a fast foray into sabre fencing while Manika Batra attempted to move Indian table tennis progress by a painstaking inch.
India’s story at Tokyo 2020 is about the charge of Indian women athletes, and them securing five medals out of five in this last one-and-a-half Olympics.
The first of those five was won by wrestler Sakshi Malik at Rio 2016. It came about after 12 medal-less days. Then a debutant at the Games, India’s first female wrestling medallist says it took a handful of month-long training stints in Spain, sparring with reputed World and Olympic medallists, to inject quiet confidence into her.
“Just being around that environment of excellence in your sport can boost you and make you believe you belong. Giving those chances of top-level competition are most important for women,” Sakshi says. “Now imagine when given these opportunities consistently. You’ll be surprised how far they can take you.”
Typically, in contact sports, young girls came up against familiar rivals: “They said ‘kaisi ladki hai jo ladkon ke saath kushti karti hai (What kind of girl wrestles with boys). No one will marry her, she’ll have deformed ears, and ungirly physique. But my parents told me exactly the opposite. They said I was good at sport. That was enough,” she says of the reinforcement. Children seldom look beyond the family for validation, Sakshi adds.
Ambition meets opportunity
Indian sport has benefitted from the maturity levels of female athletes who show higher cognitive abilities, especially in tactical sports. While outliers like Sindhu (tall, strong, worked hard on agility) can match physical parameters of competition, India’s female medallists have shown remarkable adaptability to stay bull-headed about their medal dreams.
“Women are driven so they train very hard. But when they get support of coaching, physios and nutrition, that path to medal becomes very clear. Then like me, you can go to the Olympics feeling fearless and supported, and stay respectful towards competition but not get overawed, put your head down and fight with zero pressure,” Sakshi says.
Former Commonwealth Games medallist Aparna Popat has now watched three Games bring in badminton medals, and says the 2010 CWG was the turning point for Indian women – as they started raking in medals from 2012. “Support and planning really took off then. It’s not about comparing to men: women fight women from other countries. So just make sure you give them what their opponents are getting – we matched China in badminton because we gave our girls coach, physio, strategist, cook. Maybe you’ll fall short, but the women knowing they got everything can do wonders. Then they don’t need extra motivation,” she explains.
That all of this is new for Indian women is making the numbers appear skewed compared to men. But Popat reckons the relentless supercharging of female ambition targeted at medals has changed India for good. “I played in times when we were super-apologetic about why we played sport: because we liked it or some such thing. But with even basic support, things that made women hesitant – clothes, society, injury, just vanish,” she says.
A female sporting champion has normalised the career path in a decade’s time, she says. “With every medal, the challenges of perception and acceptance are chipping away,” Popat adds.
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