In 2019, my personal journey will continue: I am training harder — and smarter — than ever, looking forward to more titles and medals as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But there are larger uncertainties and questions: What can we do to encourage more women across all spheres, especially in sports? How can India give its best-ever performance at the Olympics? What is it that young girls and women across the nation can learn from my struggles and successes?
Let’s first talk about India’s prospects at international sports meets in general, with an eye on Tokyo in particular. The first thing sports, particularly those which centre around individual achievement, (and not just the one team game that draws so much attention and resources) needs is more funding. Funds are the first step towards building the infrastructure and expertise that can recognise, nurture and maintain the excellence that is required to perform at the highest level. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), for instance, mandates that schools have a certain infrastructure, that every child in India has access to specific facilities close to their home, in their own locality.
We can look at China and the difference that sports facilities have made to their performance at the international level. What is needed is an SSA-like scheme for sports. All children enjoy playing, and it is this joy that turns into grit and determination. With every child guaranteed the right facilities, they can learn to play and be recognised if they have an aptitude for a particular game at an early age. I remember in my own school days, I began with teaspoon-races and three-legged races! Every game counts. Today, my own children are always playing, they love it and along with their studies, it forms an important part of their overall development.
It is also important for there to be complete coordination between the government and sports federations and unity even within the sports federations themselves. The government, of course, is already doing a lot for sports and its growth. Under the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme, which was instituted by the current NDA government in September 2014, the government is investing considerable funds in promoting talent. To provide an impetus towards an athlete’s training, facilities, coaching et al is provided, along with a stipend of Rs 50,000. This is not a small amount. I never earned that much even when I had a government job!
In the new year, we must ask for efficiency and accountability not only from the government and sports authorities, but also from the athletes themselves. In a country like India, with limited resources, is it fair that even under-performing persons continue to get such a handsome allowance and facilities?
The stipends and facilities must be performance-linked in sports, as in any other field. This will have multiple positive effects. First, it will ensure that new talent among the younger generation also gets a fair chance and fresh blood is injected into the athlete pool in the country. Second, it will keep those who are receiving the facilities on their toes and not let any kind of lethargy or a lackadaisical attitude to set in. Third, even for those who lose their benefits, it will act as a motivating force for them to perform better.
Another aspect of sports in India that requires attention is the increasingly stellar performance of women. Women are now outperforming men in international events. Clearly, this is an area that the government, as well as all other interested parties, should focus on. Developing the potential of India’s girls and women will only lead to more international recognition, which in turn will fuel the growth of sports at home, creating a much-needed virtuous cycle.
In our society, women are often discouraged from performing multiple roles. But to the girls and women of India, I say that you should chase excellence and achievement. Age, marital status, region, religion — none of this should stand in your way. After being married and having children, I continued to train — and win — at the highest level. This required a great effort on my part, I have learnt to listen to my body and mind and find people who when they work with me, understand my way of working. Whatever you do in life, these lessons are important. It is important to step out of the home and follow your dreams and passions. Achievement can only come through hard work. We all have to give ourselves the opportunity to do that work, only then can we scale new heights.
I come from a relatively small community, one which is not particularly wealthy or powerful even in my home state. Yet, today, because of my achievements, I am a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. I am truly grateful for this opportunity. I can turn to the most powerful and popular people, and tell them with pride that my achievements, my Olympic medal, world championships and all the other titles, are because of hard work and dedication.
In the next year, there will be a general election, which is important for the entire country. My only wish is that it be a fair election, a free one where the will of the people is clearly expressed. After the people elect a government, it must work for the development of the entire nation, as I am sure it will endeavour to do.
I hope that in 2019, I continue to do India proud on the global stage and there are others who are inspired to do the same in all walks of life.