The Jwala Gutta episode reflects our intolerance of assertive sportswomen
It takes audacity to hold your own in a crosscourt rally exchange in badminton,standing at the net and beating back the smashes raining down on you at steep angles. It takes some nerve to then turn this skirmish on its head,and attack the man across the net in a mixed doubles pairing,as Jwala Gutta often does,while holding the forecourt.
India celebrated Guttas aggression at the 2009 World Championships in Hyderabad and at the Commonwealth Games. It also rejoiced in her Worlds bronze medal in 2011. But the threat of a lifetime ban by the Badminton Association of India (BAI),for reasons ranging from her questioning the randomly applied player replacement rules in the Indian Badminton League to her allegedly outrageous,aggressive and strident behaviour,has a dark subtext. It reflects just how uncomfortable many Indians still are about sportswomen who are outspoken,assertive and self-confident.
Not too long ago,tennis player Sania Mirza was painted as a brash young woman who didnt conform to peoples expectations of a humble sportswoman. In contrast,Saina Nehwal was projected as the demure and acceptable badminton star. In truth,both girls were feisty and went on to chart their own successful career graphs. But at one point,it seemed as though Sania Mirza,in spite of her considerable successes,could do nothing to please her fuddy-duddy countrymen.
First,there was the bizarre controversy about her having disrespected the national flag during the Hopman Cup,where,incidently,she notched an impressive performance. Then the Twitter trolls took it upon themselves to upbraid her for not wearing a sari at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony. She was thrown in as bait when the entire tennis establishment bickered ahead of the London Games last summer,with grown men squabbling over partnerships. It was demanded that Mirza,who had already won two Grand Slams by then,give a written commitment that she would have no say in who she would be partnered with. The most bitter rancour,however,was reserved for her announcement that she would be marrying Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. The nation failed one of its most talented tennis stars by demanding justifications for her personal choices.
Champions seldom stick to conventions. It was an innate,free-willed conviction that prompted Mirza to break away from the clutch of girls who threw moonballs to extend a rally and waited for opponents to make mistakes. Critics were quick to question her choices. The Sania Mirza persona was shrunk to that of a girl who dripped attitude and was undone by her own hubris,when all she wanted to do was stay true to her convictions and her natural style in one of the toughest sports circuits in the world. Indians who asked for aggression on court had a long way to go before they learnt to accept even a bit of it off court.
The same repressive attitudes are on display in the Jwala Gutta episode. The badminton player was asked submit a written apology for her supposed intransigence. When she refused to back down,the BAI arbitrarily barred from playing in pro tournaments. A second committee will now look into her offence. Although,with some massive egos bruised,she is likely to face some more vindictive action.
How speaking your mind during the half-baked IBL amounts to an international life-ban is impossible to comprehend. But stranger still are the complaints of badmintons officials. They have been carping about everything,from how she does not take their calls to how she does not look suitably contrite when summoned for inquiry.
It is almost 50 years since the swimming great,Dawn Fraser,who won eight Olympic medals in three successive Games (1956,1960,1964),was harangued by Australian Olympic officials for her independent disposition,her irreverence towards authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. Thirty years later,Fraser was voted Australias greatest female athlete and Australian female athlete of the century by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Her brand of irreverence is celebrated as proud Larrikinism by Australians,who like their sports figures bold and hard-nosed.
No one cares or remembers that she marched in the Olympic opening ceremony against the wishes of the officials,or that she wore an older swimming costume in the competition because it was more comfortable than the one prescribed for the contingent. One can only hope India does not take another 30 years to accept its own self-assured and confident sportswomen. It is not as if the country is teeming with world-beating talent. The tennis singles and badminton doubles cabinets are visibly bare.