PARTAB RAMCHAND | 7 AUGUST, 2017

'Excuse Me, While I Touch the Sky': Indian Sportswomen Break Through Patriarchal Barriers

PARTAB RAMCHAND


So the focus is right now firmly on Indian sportswomen and why not? Indeed it is about time they received due recognition for their achievements after being for long in the shadow of Indian sportsmen and given the all too familiar hurdles and obstacles they have had to overcome in a generally patriarchal society. They deserve plaudits aplenty in fighting the odds and emerging triumphant.

It has taken the splendid performance of the Indian women’s cricket team at the ICC World Cup where they finished runners-up to England after being within striking distance of winning the trophy to swing the spotlight on the sportswomen from this country.

The fact remains that the sportswomen have frequently achieved greater feats then the sportsmen. Unfortunately there has been a condescending attitude towards them from everyone involved with sport in the country be it their male counterparts to 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 the country has produced over the years sportswomen who have excelled at international meets, including the biggest stage - the Olympics. In a number of disciplines women have matched the men and in some cases even surpassed them.

Following independence India did produce some outstanding sportswomen in the fifties and sixties but no one really made an impact on 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 as the Asian Games. At 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 70s Geeta Zutshi was the flag bearer winning the gold medal in the 800m at the 1978 Asian Games at Bangkok. But it was the arrival of PT Usha in the early 80s 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 at 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. In the Asian Games at Seoul in 1986 Usha won four golds and one silver.

But her biggest moment came about in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. After winning her semifinal Usha finished fourth in the final of the 400m 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 90s 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 at Kuala Lumpur in 1998 followed by a silver medal in the world shooting Grand Prix in Georgia later the same year.

But 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 GMs. And 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 PV 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 viewers for a non-cricketing event underlined the growing interest of sports fans in this country in events involving 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 a silver in the shot put event at Rio.

This year the upward trend has continued. At the Asian athletic championships held in Bhubneshwar 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 FIB A Asia Cup at Bangalore and to bring further cheer came the heartwarming performance at Lord’s. Verily the sky seems to be the limit for Indian sportswomen and it is time to say ``Chak de India.’’

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