The question itself was unremarkable, a cliche even. It was something that almost every woman who has done something of note in Indian sports, especially ones from a not-so-urban background, has come across at some point in her career. ‘Was everyone in your village okay with a woman doing this? Did no one say anything to your father?’
What was remarkable was how Punam Yadav answered it. The 22-year-old had just won the weightlifting gold in women’s 69kg category at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and she was handling the media with as much swagger as she had in dominating her competition. “No,” she said. “Even if somebody did say something, why would he care?” It’s no secret that India’s women athletes have been doing well in international competitions — this has been the case for quite a few years now and the ongoing Commonwealth Games has merely served to reaffirm that. But coming to the fore in Gold Coast has been a new generation of women athletes, for whom the path had already been broken. Free of the barriers that slowed down the generation that came before them, these women are arguably better and aiming for much bigger.
An analysis of international events that India has participated in reveals this shift. The Olympics may not be the ideal event to test this theory, given the rather limited success India has had. But even there, after just one medal by a woman till 2008, half of the eight medals won since have been by female athletes. In the 2006 Commonwealth Games, women accounted for just 16 of the 50 medals India won — 32 per cent. By the time New Delhi hosted the Games in 2010, this figure had risen marginally to 36 per cent. Four years later in Glasgow, 45 per cent of Indian medals were brought home by female athletes. In Gold Coast—the first ever Commonwealth Games to give out the same number of medals for men and women—this trend has continued.
On the third day of the Games, 16-year-old Manu Bhaker showed an unnatural lack of nerves as she dominated participants twice her age en route to a gold medal in women’s 10m air pistol. Bhaker’s backstory has no regressive pantomime villains asking what business a girl had in sports. By the time she decided to switch focus on to shooting at 14, she had already been introduced to boxing, tennis and Thang-ta, a Manipuri martial art in which she even has a national medal. The only question that Hima Das—the 18-year-old who qualified for the final of the women’s 400m—faced when taking up athletics was why she was giving up football. Only two years ago, she was a youth footballer who grew up idolising Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.
Mehuli Ghosh, the other Indian teenager to win a shooting medal (silver in 10m rifle) in Gold Coast, came to her coach Joydeep Karmakar when she was just 14. By then, she already had a crisis to overcome—she had accidentally hit an onlooker during a tournament and was temporarily suspended. Both Ghosh and Bhaker overcame senior compatriots while winning their medals—the latter beat Heena Sidhu for gold while Apurvi Chandela settled for bronze in Ghosh’s event.
Compare their stories to a couple of gold medallists from a different era. Roopa Unnikrishnan, who won the women’s free rifle prone event in the 1998 Games, talks of how she had to practice with an empty gun for want of ammo, holding it in position and imagining firing it. Anjali Bhagwat, who won four gold medals in the 2002 Manchester Games, had not started shooting when she was Bhaker’s age. Her first international meet came in 1995 when she was 26. It is not that all Indian shooters of that time had to deal with that—just three years later, a 15-year-old Abhinav Bhindra made his CWG debut. Another contemporary, Jaspal Rana had an Asian Games gold when he was still a teenager.
In a lot of ways, it is the older duo’s success that has ensured that the likes of Bhaker and Ghosh did not have to battle gender barriers. And this is not limited to shooting. Another Gold Coast gold medallist Mirabai Chanu has often talked of how it was Kunjarani Devi’s feats that inspired her to take up weightlifting. PV Sindhu’s Rio silver, it can be argued, was built on the back of Saina Nehwal’s bronze four years before. Wrestler Sakshi Malik, right after she won bronze in the Rio Olympics, acknowledged the contribution made by the two elder Phogat sisters to the sport. “When I started, we were only five or six girls in wrestling. The change started after the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi (where the Phogat sisters won medals). Now, we have lesser mats and many more girls coming to play,” she was quoted as saying.
World Championships medallist Anju Bobby George reckons it is not just gender barriers that women athletes from the nineties and noughties helped tear down.
“There was a mental block. We were thinking that we were just good enough for Asian medals, that we were not good enough to get a world or Olympic medal. I think a lot of that went away after my medal. When I won bronze at the World Championships, other women were sitting up and thinking they could do this too.”
Anju too recollects looking up to the women athletes who came before her—the PT Ushas and Jyotirmoyee Sikdars. “When Jyotirmoyee won Asian Games gold in 1998, I was a kid who did not have belief in herself. But when a woman from India achieves that, we believe that maybe tomorrow we will also be able to reach those same heights.”
It is a baton of inspiration that has been passed on with each runner a bit faster and better than their predecessor. It has passed through the hands of Usha and Sikdar, to the likes of Anju and Anjali and on to Geeta Phogat, Seema Punia and Heena Sidhu. Now it rests with the future of Indian sport, who are slowly revealing themselves, one amazing performance at a time.“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” wrote Isaac Newton. If the likes of Manu Bhaker and Mehuli Ghosh find themselves on an Olympic podium one day, they would do well to echo a similar sentiment.
A few Indian women took the road less travelled to become totemic symbols for the next generation. Here are 10 such athletes who smashed patriarchy and stereotypes in the 21st century.
Her qualification for the 2012 Olympics opened the door for women to pursue wrestling. Three more women—including one who won bronze—qualified for wrestling at Rio. 21 Age when she won her first international title
She had most of India googling ‘Produnova vault’ before the 2016 Olympics. In Tripura, even basic facilities were non-existent (she used a dilapidated scooter to practice vault routines) but drive and discipline put her on the world map. 1st Indian woman gymnast to take part in the Olympics
Growing up in poverty, she thought she was a ‘burden’ on family. After taking to archery, there was no turning back. Accolades followed after becoming World No 1. 1st Indian woman to be No 1 in an Olympic sport
Lifted a veil on the scenario in the late 90s. “We didn’t have any technical know-how, because shooting was a new event for India.” Anjali’s glut at Manchester in 2002 shattered the glass ceiling. 4
Gold medals she pocketed at the 2002 CWG
Indian weightlifting has often been hit with dope scandals but before that came a trailblazer from Andhra Pradesh. Malleswari is one of the few to have won the Khel Ratna before winning an Olympic medal (bronze in 2000), first by an Indian woman ever. 4 Number of World Championship medals
Anju Bobby George
Now an administrator, she is one of the very few heroes India has produced in athletics. Remains the only Indian with a senior Worlds medal in athletics. Finished 5th in the 2004 Olympics.2003
Bronze at Paris World Championships in 2003
The Olympic medallist is an ambassador for the girl child campaign in Haryana, a state with one of the worst sex ratios in the country. Her body of work has already convinced many families to put girl kids in badminton clinics. 2012 The year she became the 1st Indian shuttler to win an Olympic medal
Her first tennis lessons comprised practicing on courts made of cow dung. Spectacularly debunked the faulty ideology that Indian women couldn’t play tennis at a high level.6 Majors Sania has won (3 women’s doubles, 3 mixed doubles)
MC Mary Kom
First lady in her sport not only continues to inspire kids a third her age but is still a tour de force on the sporting arena. Her hunger and desire remain at a high level. Opened her own academy in Manipur last month. 5 World Championship titles won
Among the handful of cricketers, who have strived to put women’s cricket front and centre. One of the most successful batswomen internationally. 6,299 Number of ODI runs, a world record