It was P T Usha who made the world pause and notice the Indian contingent in Los Angeles in 1984. Again the girls from diverse backgrounds have made the world notice India in Rio 2016 Olympics
“If I can, so can you…” “Yes, if you can, so can we”. The resonance of this signature tune which emanated from the backwaters of the Payyoli district in Kerala, has today gathered a pan India momentum. If you know athletics, you will know PT Usha, if you don’t know athletics, even then you will know who PT Usha is. There were athletes galore before PT Usha, who had represented the country. Sportswomen like Jenny Sandison, Leela Raw, Rita Davar, Nilima Ghosh and Rita D Souza, had represented the country before. But unlike Usha, most of these athletes were gentrified and belonged to the affluent and westernised community. In this sense, true to her name, Usha heralded a new dawn. The core essence of this dawn was the rise of the daughter of the soil athlete amidst the deepening of the democracy, rising aspiration and basic level consciousness for the improved sports facility in the country. After this dawn, Usha’s ‘If I can so can you…’ message was lapped on by a generations of women athletes spread all across the country and the slogan became ‘If she can, so can we…’ The resonance of this message could be felt today in the region so varied and at a distance from each other like the hills of Manipur, the paddy fields of Tripura, the dusty by-lanes of Haryana, the newly emerging sporting capital of the country Hyderabad, the city of seven stars Satara to name a few.
The ground has been ripe for successive generation of athletes starting from Usha to herald a silent women revolution in Indian sports. This revolution is conditioned by the time and circumstances they live in. As active agents in this revolution, they inspire each other and try to go further from the previous generation. As the country’s leading badminton player Saina Nehwal says, “My mother used to always tell me, now that you have taken sports as your passion and profession, you have to get the medal in Olympics for the country which Usha missed by a fraction of the second”. Saina went on to win medal for the country in London Olympics 2012. This time another girl from her alma mater Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, PV Sindhu went a step further and got silver. As first ever Indian woman to win Olympic medal for the country Karnam Malleswari sums up the mood when she says, “I would have got gold for the country in Sydney Olympics 2000. We did some tactical error and my gold got converted into a bronze. But my eventual aim in life is to come up with an academy which will convert the one gold which I missed on to many more golds for the country in the years to come”.
So near and so far moments may seem to be intangible in immediate impact, but they do leave everlasting footprints in history if the ground is ripe for the same. PT Usha may have missed the medal by a fraction of a second in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics- but her monumental feat took Indian women sportsperson miles ahead in the years to come. The ground has been ripe for the same. When reminded about the moment, with glint in her eyes Usha says, “When I won the semi finals in the Los Angeles, Judie Brown of America who eventually won the silver medal told me that she was wondering that whereas from India no men is doing better, one woman is forcing the world to pause and notice the entire Indian contingent. When she came to know from others that I am competing in five different events which include 100 meters and 200 meters races, she wondered as to how one could take such a heavy workload and compete in five different challenging events, that too at the highest global sporting stage. The local press covered this widely. Even the world record holder of that time Edwin Moses congratulated me”. From 1984 in Los Angeles to 2016 in Rio, 32 long years have passed. There are changes galore all around amidst one constant. If it was P T Usha who made the world pause and notice the Indian contingent in Los Angeles, it is again two girls from diverse backgrounds — P V Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, who made the world notice India in Rio. These two along with the gymnast Dipa Karmakar, long distance runner Lalita Babar and teenage golfer Aditi Ashok examplified the craving of the Indian women to write their own future. Rio is not an aberration. Rather, Rio is yet another chapter in the resurgence of Indian women in sports. If we see the medal break up — be it the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games or the Olympics — Indian women from diverse backgrounds, fighting against all odds and breaking different barriers have emerged from nowhere to come to the forefront.
‘Never say die attitude’ irrespective of all odds and ‘give it all mindset’ with the feeling of everything to gain and nothing to lose has been the core essence of this process of women resurgence in sports.
What makes Sakshi Malik, a girl from the remote village in Rohtak in Haryana — the state infamous for low sex ratio, stark patriarchy and Kangroo courts to take up sports identified as the male bastion? Mokhra Khas, from where Sakshi Malik hails, is supposed to be wrestler’s village where every house boasts of a wrestler son. Ironically, if Sakshi would not have left her village, she would not have been an Olympic champion in wrestling, as in Mokhra Khas women are not allowed to enter the akharas. Despite all these, a girl of the transport worker father dreamt to fly an aeroplane and travel to the foreign country and so made sports the vehicle to realise her dreams. Sakshi and Mokhra Khas are not the examples in isolation. Another tiny hamlet in the state of Haryana’s Bhiwani district Bilali was known for its strong patriarchal views. The women of the village were not allowed to step outside their village boundaries. When a former pehelwan from this village decided that his daughter will take a plunge in wrestling competing and practising with other male wrestlers, people boycotted him and his house. Today, Bilali has made a mark for itself in the wrestling map of the world as the home to the world fame wrestle sisters- Vinesh, Babita and Geeta Phogat. The state government in the recent years has been tirelessly working to change the ground reality and perception of the state, and post Mokhra Khas and Belali ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign has become ‘Beti Bacho, Beti Padhao and Beti Khilao’ campaign.
What makes a girl hailing from Maan region in draught hit Satara district of Maharashtra fight against so many odds and take athletics as an option? Lalita Babar’s parents were scared of another drought affecting their crops and so wanted her to get married and get settled at the earliest. She refused. In Maan region, the girl children were largely considered undesirable and many girls were even named Nakushi, meaning unwanted. But braving against all odds, Lalita became the first ever Indian athlete to reach the finals in the track event after 32 years. The so called Nakushi is now known as Maandeshi Express and she has given a decisive push to change this perception of the village forever.
What makes Dipa Karmakar risk her life to perform the Produnova vault, widely known as one of the most dangerous feats in gymnastics? She may have nearly done the impossible, but her eyes are already fixated to the next goal. “I have to get the medal next time. Rio has given me the confidence. Nothing less” — was Dipa’s immediate reaction after she narrowly came fourth. It’s true that traditionally Dipa comes from the state and the region where gymnastics has got a legacy. But how many will dare to peruse gymnastics as serious career sports option and specialise in Produnova vault, the most dangerous form of it?
What made P V Sindhu get up before sunrise, every morning for years when the children of her age were fast asleep? For Sindhu — life was not as tough and challenging as in terms of socio-economic hardships as Lalita, Sakshi or Dipa- but she had another frontier to conquer. PV Sindhu’s elder sister P V Divya, a national level handball player had given up the sports to become a doctor. Sindhu’s both the parents — father PV Ramana and mother P Vijaya were volleyball players. Naturally, she had the height and family expertise to become a volleyball player. Instead, she went for the tougher option. And when she went up for this option, she had to live up to the challenge. Recalling those days PV Ramana says, “Our home was at far distance from the area where she practised. She had to wake up early every morning, often before the sunrise, so that she could travel with me to reach there in time. In the evenings she used to return tired. But never even once I had to call her more than once to wake her up’. Ramana, himself an Arjuna Awardee says, “Unlike the team sports such as volleyball, individual sports like the badminton give you the chance to shape your own destiny and hard work”. Sindhu with her hard-work shaped her own destiny.
The commonalities guiding these players are palpable. And who is better to describe this other than the Indian boxing legend Mary Kom. Her entire life has been the real saga of only three phases in life — ‘struggle’, ‘more struggle’ and ‘more and more struggle’. She has a simple and a straight answer to this. “I struggled a lot to come up to this level. I don’t fear anything except God”. Her husband Onler Kom seconding her says, “When you go through all these struggles in life, you reach a stage where these struggles rather being a deterrent, become a catalyst to move ahead in life and reach your goal. They motivate you to outstretch yourself, to push yourself harder and further. ” For these women athletes, these struggles prepared themselves for larger battles ahead in life. As former athlete and Olympian Ashwini Nachappa had once— ‘When hardwork meets the opportunity, that is destiny for me’. From Usha to Sakshi- these sportswomen are hell bent on shaping their own destiny.
(The writer is senior sports journalist)