It’s gratifying to see Indian women making a mark at the top level in international sports. Not that we didn’t do anything of note in the past, but most of those were results of individual efforts. Rarely did we have an athlete, who could be called the product of a system. They worked hard mostly out of own interest, with minimal support. That’s why we had only a handful of women on the world map when it came to sports.
This has changed over the years. Infrastructure has improved, facilities for athletes have become better, there is international exposure with incentives like cash awards for winning medals in international competitions. Importantly, the approach has changed and there is continuity in what is happening. This has led to consistency and that’s why we see a number of Indians challenging the best in various disciplines instead of having one or two top-level performers in 10 or 20 years.
Not that we did not have talent in the past. Nor did they lack dedication. A glance through India’s record over the last 35-odd years will show that there were a few who excelled at the Asian level and came close to winning medals on a bigger stage. But they had to make do with basic facilities at national camps in Patiala. There was no food supplement, no sports science or awareness of fitness and recovery. Exposure was negligible. We saw what athletes from advanced countries were doing only when we competed against them.
Changes in the system and outlook have ensured that our athletes are on an even keel now. They can keep track of what is happening at the world level and access facilities which help them get there. This process involves putting together small things and the impact it has on performance is huge. Well before an athlete goes to an event, he or she can prepare knowing what needs to be done and how it is to be done. Coach, physio, dietician, doctors and recovery experts—there is almost an army of specialists supporting them in dedicated centres for different sports. Maybe things are not the best for track and field athletes at the moment, but in general, the situation is a lot better.
I am sometimes asked whether athletes during my time got less recognition or respect. And, if that worked as a deterrent. Let me say that the adulation was no less after we won medals. The media highlighted our achievements, making successful athletes household names. The difference between then and now is the system. Rather than individual enterprise, we have a process in place. Once that happens, a lot of things take care of themselves, provided the individual is committed to working hard.
Now that we have reached a position where our women are getting noticed, the next target should be to expand this pool and aim for more medals. For that, we have to continue the good work with more detailed and well-planned exposure. There should be better monitoring too. Athletes often perform below potential after having attained the qualifying marks for big events. This needs attention for us to reach the next level. Considering what we have achieved, I am hopeful that we can do better. It’s a question of retaining focus and doing the right things.
The author is a multiple Asian Games gold medallist, and the first Indian woman athlete of international repute