Sania Mirza’s tweet about completing 80 weeks as world No. 1 was a modest self-acknowledgement. But when cricketer-turned-commentator Sanjay Manjrekar tried to act over-smart by quoting the tweet and giving a clarification that she was the No. 1 in doubles, the tables turned as the tennis ace provided a sarcastic retort.
There are times when while mentioning players’ rankings in tennis, disambiguation between singles and doubles is used. An elaboration however is only specified when a player is a regular in both the singles and doubles circuits. Or to keep a distinction between players sharing names – like Andy and Jamie Murray, where Jamie only plays doubles. When it comes to the incident involving Mirza and Manjrekar, there was no need to put out a disclaimer. Mirza has only been playing doubles since 2013.
That a player like her, who is among the elite in the Women's Tennis Association circuit, has had to deal with such an attitude from a fellow sportsperson is downright appalling. Yet, it is also revealing of how sportswomen are perceived – and treated – in our country, despite their accomplishments.
Against the backdrop of the system's governance
Santhi Soundarajan, Dutee Chand and Pinky Pramanik are three such examples who only form the tip of this iceberg. The first two were victims of the International Association of Athletics Federation's policy of having female athletes undergoing gender determination tests if suspected of exceeding the levels of testosterone prescribed by the world athletics body for female athletes.
Soundarajan, silver-medallist at the 2006 Asian Games in the 800-metre race, was stripped of her medal and currently has a coaching role with Tamil Nadu’s Sports Development Authority. Chand came off better after appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A three-member panel formed to oversee the case ruled in favour of Chand and invalidated the result of her gender determination test. Consequently, the 20-year-old went on to participate at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Pramanik, meanwhile, was subject to the worst humiliation possible. Branded as a male, the 2006 Asian Games champion was charged with crime, which immediately aborted her sporting career. The Calcutta High Court cleared all charges against her eventually, but the taint to her reputation remains, untouched by time and all victories in the court of law.
The CAS panel observed that the IAAF did not have specific monitoring to determine how female athletes with higher testosterone levels had an advantage over those it considered to have a normal level. There is also no inclusion of dietary habits, training efforts and natural genetics of the athletes. The CAS thus put an onus on the IAAF to justify its claims that these female athletes did, indeed, benefit. The world athletics body's failure to do so would finally see this horrendous testing system be scrapped.
For Indian athletes thus shamed, the lack of support from their officials added insult to injury. It also played a part in the the mental agony and uncertainty the athletes experience. A report in The New York Times in June this year revealed that Chand was not kept in the loop and had no idea why she was being tested.
If on one side there has been apathy, on the other has been an oppression of an altogether different kind. Of sexual harassment, with young trainees being subjugated by the coaches. Last year, in May, after a teenage athlete committed suicide in Kerala at the Sports Authority of India centre, the issue bubbled to life. Questions were raised and a need to introspect on the living conditions of female athletes was perpetuated. Beyond the genuineness of the furore raised, though, is obscurity about how, if at all, the situation has changed for better for the training athletes.
If these were not enough, there is also the absence of necessary infrastructural support available to women players, across all sporting platforms. From viable training centres, starting right at the grassroots level, to the provision of amenities that extend to players' physical and mental development, there is a deficit.
Changes in perspective required
Remedying these problematic aspects has to be two-fold. Their continuance is a circularity, brashness, indifference, and disinclination fuelling each other. To address them, there needs to be a change in the outlook and a commitment to invest effort to try and bring about the same. Not only with regard to the sporting administrators, but also of the viewers.
Long-held notions about women in Indian sporting culture need to be displaced. Most specifically, the comparing of male and female sportspersons, where the latter is held as a parallel to the former instead of being recognised separately and on their own merit.
For the deeply divided society that India is, remedying these problems will be a drawn-out process. There will be setbacks too, like what happened in Mirza's case, but positives will arrive as well. As has been the inaugural women’s I-League, a welcome fillip to counter the pessimism.