They are the champions

There’s a message for women in the victories of Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal. Namita Bhandare writes.

While we hail Mary Kom, spare a thought for the unsung women athletes in India struggling for two minutes of fame. While we shower petals on Saina Nehwal, spare a thought for the girls at sport camps powerless before coaches and officials. And while we celebrate India’s Olympic medal haul, do consider that two of the six were won by the 23 women who made up India’s 81-strong contingent.

Yet, India’s women athletes continue to be less than equal, says senior sports writer Sharda Ugra. All athletes, regardless of gender, face enormous challenges: official and public indifference, lack of funding and pathetic training facilities. But women athletes also fight gender discrimination, sometimes referred to as India’s ‘dirty little secret’.

When two women boxers (one of them a world championship medallist) are asked to serve tea at the National Institute of Sport, when the BCCI disburses Rs. 70 crore to 160 former players and there’s not one woman on its list or when 31 women hockey players level sexual harassment charges against their coach, then that dirty little secret is in the open.

Everyone listens when Sania Mirza slams the All India Tennis Association’s decision to pair her with Leander Paes in the mixed doubles at London without her consent. Everyone listens when Jwala Gutta confirms discrimination against women athletes. But did anyone hear the four teenage girls from the junior wrestling team level sexual harassment charges against their coach in June this year? “We are looking into the matter,” was what Sports Authority of India director general Desh Deepak Verma said. And that was that.

Who speaks for Asian Games gold medallist Pinki Pramanik who spent 25 days in a male ward in jail following trumped up rape charges? How do we begin to restore her dignity after an MMS of her inconclusive gender test goes viral? Pinki later said she had been given testosterone injections that made her more masculine. Who gave her those injections? We don’t even ask. We see the same official abandonment when four women relay players are stripped off their Asian Games gold after failing a dope test. Who gave them the dope? “They have no safety net,” says Ugra.

Discrimination against women in sport is admittedly worse in Saudi Arabia which prohibits women from competing and sent two women to the Olympics only after threats to ban the kingdom. Even in the West, women earn less, find fewer sponsors and get less media coverage. Mary Kom’s own sport, boxing has been a male Olympic preserve until this year in London. To this day, women athletes are asked by federations to wear tighter shorts or skirts to present a more ‘aesthetic’ appeal.

In India, the problem stems from the inordinate power officials wield over athletes, who come mostly from poor families. The coach decides which athlete gets picked for a national training camp or receives a government sponsorship or gets quota allotments in the sports category. It’s a power that makes women doubly vulnerable to exploitation. For every high-profile revelation, there are countless unreported stories because the women have no choice but to remain silent, or leave. And washing the coach’s dirty clothes, as revealed by Ashwini Nachappa, is often the least of their daily humiliations.

But focusing on women is a winning strategy, and not just because there is a connection between women, sport, health, leadership and self-esteem, as pointed out by a UN 2007 report, Women, Gender Equality and Sport. In China, says Minxin Pei in The Indian Express, women have won 60% of all international championships in the last 30 years. In the US, women account for 66% of medals won this Olympics.

In India, Saina and Mary have emerged as role models not just because of the bronze in their suitcase but because of their overcoming of adversity. How many of us even knew that Mary, the mother of twin boys, was a five-time world champion? Sania comes from a state that has one of the worst sex ratios and has spoken of how ‘lucky’ she was to play. It doesn’t matter that Tintu Luka returns without a medal, we need to tell our daughters about her remarkable journey – from walking five km a day to go to school to running alongside Caster Semenya and Alysia Johnson Montano.

These are women who have overcome challenges of deprivation and of gender. We need to sing their stories not as Olympic champions but as champions for women’s rights across the country. Today if thousands of girls can dream of taking ownership of their destinies, they have these pioneers to thank.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal