I’m being totally upfront when I say: Sakshi Malik, we are proud of your stupendous achievement... not just as a competitive athlete who won India’s first medal at Rio, but as a woman who defeated the odds many times over. At the time of writing P.V. Sindhu had pocketed the silver, and we were holding our breaths for the gold. Along with Dipa Karmakar, India now has Teen Deviyaan to be proud of. I know this isn’t a gender-neutral compliment. It isn’t! Deliberately so. There is no such thing as gender-neutrality in sports. There’s not much of it in other fields, either. But this column is primarily about Sakshi and her determination. This is also about Sakshi’s mother and her steel-like resolve to create a champion in the family. Sakshi was born in Mohra, a small village in Madhya Pradesh. It was her mother who encouraged her to wrestle.
It was her mother who sensed Sakshi’s potential. It was her mother who took her to Rohtak where Sakshi trained with boys and faced the expected opposition... even hostility. Twelve years of sustained effort and focused diligence finally paid off when she stood on the podium and “snacked” on her bronze medal. In that one moment of Olympic glory, Sakshi unwittingly sent out several powerful messages to millions of Sakshis in India. Which is what makes her historic win that much more significant. Which is why it is important to throw out the clichéd “feminist” argument which dictates that Sakshi’s win should be de-linked from her gender and seen in isolation. No, it definitely shouldn’t. While the “Daughter of India” comments are beginning to get on my nerves (from Nirbhaya to Sakshi, this has become the pet phrase of netas), it must be acknowledged that in a society as warped as ours, one must not ignore Sakshi’s gender — I think she deserves another medal just for being a woman in an arena that does indeed discriminate openly and blatantly against female athletes.
The three biggest heroes from India at the Rio Olympics happen to be women. The list includes Dipa Karmakar. This is not a coincidence. It isn’t one of those “luck by chance” stories. There is a common thread running through the participation and achievements of all female athletes from India. It has been there ever since P.T. Usha’s time. Why, even a global icon like Sania Mirza has had to deal with her fair share of marginalisation and deprivation during those early years. So many decades later, have we moved forward significantly? Far from it. Whether it is the remarkable story of Deepika Kumari, the archer from Jharkhand (soon to hit screens as an evocative documentary), or Mary Kom’s gritty life from her modest beginnings in Manipur, to where she is today, our women athletes have pretty much done it on their own steam. Most of the government patronage is reserved for competing men.
While India’s obsession with cricket ensures that corporate funding goes straight into the coffers of our cricketing superstars. Female athletes in more progressive, more affluent countries, on the other hand, do receive a fair amount of corporate support. Here, I am not talking about tennis stars like the American wonder women, the Williams sisters, but athletes from Germany, Switzerland, the UK and China who compete in track and field events. Add to that the usual prejudices women are up against the moment they step out of their homes and into a stadium, and what you get is discouragement on multiple levels.
A catchy phrase goes: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” In India, we can also add: Only well-behaved women find “good” husbands. Our female athletes are disciplined and exceedingly well-behaved (you simply cannot make the cut otherwise). And some of them have made history! Mary Kom married an exceptional and unique man. Most of the others find it hard to get a suitable boy, given the gruelling hours of training involved. Sania Mirza is also pretty fortunate to have married a sportsman who seems to understand and respect his wife’s commitment to her chosen sport. Even before we get to that particular hurdle (marriage), our girls have to combat collective resistance from within their own family, neighbourhoods, community and society at large. We can rant and rave and theorise about not bracketing a Sakshi, Sindhu and Dipa in gender slots since that automatically perpetuates patriarchy and gender stereotyping — it probably does. But how can one combat a deep-rooted social menace without acknowledging it exists? The only way for the next generation of Sakshis, Sindhus and Dipas to push ahead is to fight for their legitimate rights on all fronts and levels.
They must be in a position to demand equal rights and equal opportunities. Giving a Khel Ratna to our athletes is nothing but tokenism. Give them facilities! A well-earned purse of `2.5 crores has also been announced for Sakshi. She, and other under-privileged athletes could have done with this kind of cash when they were training for Rio. So, before we throw money around, let’s insist on effective policies and a roadmap first. Awards and honours act like spurs. They encourage our athletes to try that much harder in future. But our sights should be fixed on Tokyo 2020 from the moment the Rio closing ceremony ends and our athletes pack their kits to head home. What we want to hear is not platitudes and “shabaashes”. Yes, we had the highest number of athletes qualifying for the games this time. Is that enough? Are we happy to settle for just that? Does our national pride and ambition not seek more? Participation is fine.
Hard work is great. Sincerity is commendable. But just like we expect our boys in blue to win every major cricket series and come back with the cup, we should set the same standards for athletes. Medals are what countries fight for at the end of the day. Why shy away from that basic motivation? Even a tiny country like Singapore (not that much larger than Gurgaon or Cuffe Parade) has produced a gold medallist! If we want our athletes to come back with a respectable harvest of medals in 2020, the time begins now. With the right diet, coaches, infrastructure, financial support and mindset, I am certain India will emerge as a major player in Tokyo. It is our sporting culture that requires a major revamp! As for our marvellous sports women stretching, pulling, jumping, punching, grappling and much more — we acknowledge your struggles on all fronts. For our female athletes to shine still more, they first need to take their equal space in society. The place on the podium will automatically follow.