The Indian women’s hockey team’s campaign at the Tokyo Olympics ended in tears as they lost the bronze medal bout against Great Britain. They missed out on a medal by a whisker.
While nothing can make up for the tangible rewards of a podium finish, the Indian team’s efforts in Tokyo weren’t futile. Coach Sjoerd Marijne, having managed the team for one last time, put it perfectly.
“We didn’t win the medal, but I think we achieved something bigger, and it’s inspiring a country and make the country proud. I think the world has seen another Indian team, and I’m really proud of that,” he said.
The questions for him in the post-game conference too were different. Journalists were keen to know about the future of the team, what is needed to bridge the gap to go from being a fourth-place team to being medallists. Earlier, these press conferences rarely had such a hopeful tone.
Ranked ninth at the start of the tournament, India defied the rankings to put up a commendable show not just of grit and determination but also of craft and quality. It may seem like a great underdog story but it probably wasn’t one. India put their best foot forward and it was almost good enough.
So why this dissonance between expectation and reality? Once again, Marijne had the answer.
“Women just don’t play enough matches. They must play tournaments like the men. Have a premier league for women. Women have shown that they are capable. The system needs to support them,” he said.
“We haven’t had too many games since 2019 and haven’t played as much as the men. Even without all that, we did what we did. So imagine if we get all that support like the men’s team,” he added.
One does not need to look too far to understand what women athletes can achieve if given the best support possible.
Women have won five out of the last nine medals (seven out of the last 13, extending back to 2012) for India at the Olympics Games. Aditi Ashok came agonisingly close to adding another medal on Saturday. And in terms of pure performances, the women have been generally better over the last two Olympic Games.
But the women athletes in India, for some reason, don’t get as much support as men. This problem extends beyond hockey and in many other Indian sports.
The Indian women’s cricket team has been performing as well as the men and has reached the finals of big tournaments in the recent past. However, the pay disparity between the two teams remains huge. Even in terms of opportunity, the women are nowhere near close to the men. The contrast is most evident during the Indian Premier League, a two-month-long T20 tournament for men. The tournament is the BCCI’s cash cow and one of the most sought-after competitions in world cricket.
However, the women are confined to a three-match almost exhibition-like tournament which serves nothing more than a filler during the IPL. Promises made for an IPL for the women have stayed promises.
The story is no different in football. India’s premier football competition for women, the Indian Women’s League is an all but a three-week affair. And since the pandemic has struck, the competition has not taken place. What makes matters worse is that the AIFF often tries to portray itself as a federation striving towards the upliftment of women’s football in India. Their strategy is based on hosting high-profile events. India will host the 2022 AFC Asian Cup and also the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup.
But India’s footballers, many of whom are not even professional, have no competition to play in. In contrast, the Indian Super League, the men’s top football competition in India was one of the first ones to resume in the pandemic. Even though that is managed largely by the Football Sports Development Limited, the AIFF led the way in organising the I-League, the second-tier of men’s football in India.
The women, though, have had to make do with loose promises. The IWL was supposed to be held in April 2021 but was postponed due to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, when AIFF announced its calendar for the upcoming year, the IWL had no mention in it.
Even in kabaddi, an indigenous Indian sport, and pretty much a sure shot medal prospect at the Asian Games, the women suffer in terms of opportunities when compared to the men. The Pro Kabaddi League has transformed the men’s game. It has helped the sport as well as the players in a big way. They are much more famous than before and financially are a lot more stable.
However, questions regarding a women’s Pro Kabaddi League have been constantly dodged by the organisers. Answers like a lack of competitiveness have been cited as reasons to not have a women’s league. It’s surprising as kabaddi is a sport where India has loads of talent even among women.
In fact, the women’s team performed better than the men at the last Asian Games winning silver compared to bronze by the men. While there may be more factors at play for the better result at Asian Games, there is little reason for the organisers to not have a women’s PKL and not be able to run it as successfully as the men’s competition.
In individual sports, the disparity is lesser as it’s harder to downplay a performance as compared to team sports, but female athletes have had to slowly earn that position. To succeed in sport, female athletes have to overcome a lot more resistance as compared to men.
The one area where the women athletes probably haven’t been discriminated against has been the treatment they received from the Prime Minister. On Friday, Narendra Modi gave the women’s hockey team a call after their bitter defeat against Great Britain. He had done so to congratulate the men’s team for their bronze a day earlier and had been communicating with India’s top-performing athletes irrespective of their gender.
The players already in tears seemed to be touched by the Prime Minister’s personal message as he enquired about the different members of the team. It was a good gesture from the Prime Minister but its effect is always going to be momentary.
Many have put it down as a PR exercise and it will not be easy for Modi to prove it otherwise until efforts, probably driven by his government, ensure that the female athletes are put on an equal footing with the men. It is quite clear that most sporting federations in India have deep political connections and a strong political will could go a long way in turning this situation around even in sports run by private bodies.
It’s heartening to see the Prime Minister take such interest in India’s sporting activities but for it to be meaningful, there will have to be tangible corrections made in the way male and female athletes are treated.
If his government can provide the push for the same and given how female athletes have performed even without the best support possible, he will have a lot more phone calls to make in the future.
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