Woman power at Tokyo

The standout point about Team India at the Tokyo Summer Olympics has been the performance of women athletes. Of India’s modest tally of two medals so far, both have been bagged by women. The silver by Saikhom Mirabai Chanu in the 49 kg weightlifting category, a bronze by badminton star P V Sindhu, adding to her tally of a silver in the 2016 edition in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, boxer Lovlina Borgohain has confirmed at least a bronze medal by reaching the semi-finals in the welterweight category, and the women’s hockey team created a sensation by beating, against the odds, three-tim.....
The standout point about Team India at the Tokyo Summer Olympics has been the performance of women athletes. Of India’s modest tally of two medals so far, both have been bagged by women. The silver by Saikhom Mirabai Chanu in the 49 kg weightlifting category, a bronze by badminton star P V Sindhu, adding to her tally of a silver in the 2016 edition in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, boxer Lovlina Borgohain has confirmed at least a bronze medal by reaching the semi-finals in the welterweight category, and the women’s hockey team created a sensation by beating, against the odds, three-time champion Australia to enter the semi-finals, holding promise of yet another.

In almost all these cases, their families have given them rock-solid support. But given the enormous and all-pervasive societal discrimination that Indian women face, theirs is no small achievement. The conspicuously modest background of at least two of the winners adds lustre to their achievements. Chanu comes from a tribal village in Manipur, and her father recalled how she travelled 35 km a day on top of trucks to train. Borgohain comes from a rural district in Assam where the roads are so bad that the local MLA has resolved to build a  pucca one before she returns home.         

In fact, all these winners stand on the shoulders of giants. Of the 15 Olympic medals that India has won since 2000, women have won seven of them. This in a country that ranks a lowly 112 out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index for 2020. The striking point about India’s post-2000 overall medals tally is that all of them are for individual events — unlike the record between 1900 and 2000 when 11 of the 30 medals India won were in the men’s hockey (eight of them were gold). The first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal was weightlifter Karnam Malleswari from Andhra Pradesh, who won a bronze at the Sydney Olympics. In the London Olympics in 2012, Indian women lifted two of the six medals — the country’s best-ever Olympic performance so far. Both were bronze medals, won by boxer Mary Kom and shuttler Saina Nehwal. At Rio in 2016, Sindhu won a silver and Sakshi Malik became the first female Indian wrestler to win a medal, taking the bronze in the 58 kg.

 
The notable point about these wins is that most of these women medallists overcame formidable odds just to compete in their chosen arenas. To be fair, many Indian male athletes come from similar backgrounds but none of them face the intimidating sexism and social prejudice that haunt women in India in general and professional women in particular. Those who choose non-conventional professions such as sports are likely to face even higher odds. This may partly explain the success of Indian women relative to the men at Tokyo; as with successful women everywhere, they try harder because they have more to prove. The question that curmudgeonly detractors may ask is, why Indian women have not won gold medals? To this, the best answer may lie in the rueful if ungrammatical graffiti on a wall in Mumbai: “From Olympics to weddings, India always expects women to bring back gold home”.


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