It was an incredible week for Indian sport. Even before the euphoria of the Thomas Cup victory in badminton died down, Nikhat Zareen brought cheers to the country that is slowly getting used to more and more sporting success. When she stood atop the podium, there was collective joy. The whole country celebrated as one. That’s the beauty of sport. Even in this divisive society of extreme reactions, in this world of social media ecstasy, anxiety and vilification, sport has the power to bridge barriers irrespective of caste, creed and religion.
At another level, Nikhat can be considered an iconoclast. For a Muslim girl from Nizamabad, taking up a male-dominated sport was not easy. The 25-year-old former world junior boxing champion had to constantly battle societal norms as a child and while growing up as a boxer. When she started showing her skill inside the ring, she started facing formidable challenges from her seniors and peers.
At one point of time, she had to endure mental trauma when she challenged six-time World Championships gold medallist M C Mary Kom for a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She eventually lost the bout under acrimonious circumstances but never gave up. So when she won the gold at the world championships, it meant more than just a medal. It was a result of those multiple challenges she had to overcome. Like she herself confesses, “I am very stubborn.” And stubborn she is. But one with a big heart and the ability to inspire.
Since women boxing’s introduction at the London Olympics in 2012, Mary Kom has won a bronze. Earlier, Vijender Singh had won India’s first boxing medal at Beijing Olympics. In London, Saina Nehwal won a bronze in badminton. Since then, the two sports have grown both in terms of quality and quantity. However, the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics was not good for both as shuttlers and boxers won fewer medals than expected. These two results would augur well for India as our sportspersons prepare for bigger challenges, including the Paris Olympics in 2024.