India has another Olympics star this year: young Dipa Karmakar who has become the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. This is a great time for us to shine a light on women in sports in India or basically ask, where are they?
Ask anyone to name five Indian sportswomen in action today and after the inevitable Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza, there’s a bound to be a lot of awkward clearing of the throat. Some will mention Mary Kom (and why not, after all, Priyanka Chopra starred in a movie about her) or reach further into the past till P.T Usha. But as for the rest, many remain stumped. On the other hand, ask about male athletes and the answers come flying: Tendulkar, Gavaskar, Paes, Bhutia, Milkha Singh, the lot. The question arises: do we not have enough Indian female athletes or are they simply ignored?
How many people would have heard of Mithali Raj (first woman cricketer to score a double hundred), PV Sindhu (first woman to win a medal in World Badminton Championships) or Heena Sidhu (pistol shooter)? These and more are among the top ranked Indian sportsmen but it is very unlikely for most to have even heard of them. This year, the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympics, a first since the 1980 Olympics, yet there is hardly any news about it despite the fact that hockey is our national sport.
Indian women are breaking records everywhere and yet their achievements are swept under the rug. Part of it comes from the stigma associated with women participating sports at all, leading to difficulties in maintaining one’s training. We might look at the case of Karmakar herself where, despite all her hard work and talent, she nearly did not reach the Olympic Games due to a lack of funding and government interest. While government treatment of nearly any sports (that is not cricket) is abysmal, it is worth noting that it is frequently female athletes who suffer the most.
One of the most recent cases to hit the papers was the controversial defeat of Sarita Devi, a boxer, at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea despite her having put up a strong show against her opponent Park Ji-Na. She was suspended for a year by the AIBA, for refusing to accept the bronze medal. One would think at a time like this the Indian government should rally behind its representative but not only did she not receive any assistance from the authorities, she and her husband had to borrow funds in order to lodge a complaint. Hers is not the only case of governmental neglect either. Rishu Mittal, another gold medalist in boxing, works as a domestic helper due to lack of government funding to help her pursue her passion. Situ Saha, who won two bronze medals at the Athens Special Olympics now helps her mother sell gol gappas rather than continue her training. Bronze medalist Nisha Rani had to sell her archery equipment to continue supporting her family.
Not only do these women often not receive the spotlight when they deserve it, they are often underpaid when compared to their male compatriots. As the recent statement by Novak Djokovic reveals, this is something which is treated as normal. Our question would be, do woman’s sports not make as much money because of the women themselves, or because of the dramatically reduced press they receive? Do we care about women in sports at all, unless it’s a select few big names?
Dipa Karmakar was the exception in this scenario, because she struggled against overwhelming odds and succeeded. This is not true for most sportswomen, for no fault of theirs. For sportswomen to keep up, they need to be in continuous training and have access to proper equipment. None of which appear to be available to women right now. And yet, despite all of this, India continues to produce remarkable sportswomen who would be the pride of any Indian. What we need to do is to show our gratitude properly and help them achieve their goals. One can only imagine what wonders they will achieve then.