The Olympics in Rio was the biggest sporting event of 2016. For Indians, the Games were largely disappointing but it gave the country new sporting icons to look up to – the two medal winners Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu, and Dipa Karmakar, whose ground-breaking achievements in gymnastics, a sport barely pursued in India, kept her on par with the medalists.

Later that year, the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal released and became the highest-grossing film in Bollywood. It was the semi-autobiographical story of the Phogat sisters, Geeta and Babita, who were the trailblazers for women’s wrestling in India.

By the time 2016 – a year known for its notoriety in news – ended, these sportswomen were household names across India and their stories were recounted with pride.

In a country that is extremely jingoistic about sport, sportsmen who win laurels for India internationally are revered almost religiously. Yet, very little of that reverence extends towards Indian sportswomen – a section of India’s sports fraternity that is perennially under the shadow, either due to their male counterparts or because of the blatant lack of light on their achievements.

How many people will remember that Harmanpreet Kaur scored a penultimate ball six to give India their first ever ICC Women’s trophy less than a month ago? But how many have forgotten the six that Rohit Sharma scored in a match years back? Most people can probably recall the dialogues and perhaps even the name of the actresses who played hockey players in Chak De! India, but will be hard-pressed to name the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team.

Individual vs team sport

There has always been a noticeable distinction in fans’ and, to some extent, media’s following of men and women athletes. But how much of this distinction is discrimination and how much of this discrimination goes beyond the average sports fan is the question.

“There is no gender discrimination in athletics as such, but in some sports, especially team sports, there is a stereotype,” said Anju Bobby George, one of India’s foremost track and field athletes. “Like women’s cricket, which is not getting attention like the men’s cricket.”

Shooter Anjali Bhagwat, one of the earliest recipients of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, had something similar to add. “In few sports, in field games like hockey and sometimes athletics, I have come across a few stories of the problems women face,” she said. “When you travel together, the athletes exchange stories and I have heard that they do have problems during their training camps, problems of abuse and harassment. In team events especially, there are chances of manipulation and favoritism, unlike in individual sport.”

Both George and Bhagwat insist that they did not face any gender bias in their playing days and had all the support from their families. The problem, then, was different; their respective sport wasn’t even considered a professional calling. But as both sportswomen assert, individual sports have it much easier as compared to team sports.

Anjali Bhagwat celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games (Reuters)
Anjali Bhagwat celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games (Reuters)

Snehal Pradhan, former India cricketer, had a rather distressing account to share when asked if she had ever faced some obstacle in her career simply because of her gender.

“There was one incident when I was playing a club match in Mumbai – by the time I had already played for India – and the opposition team said we are not going to play with a girl,” she said. “I didn’t play in that game but some calls were made. We played that team again in the tournament and that time I played.”

However, Pradhan said that this incident was an outlier in her career, where she has often played cricket with boys’ teams. “It’s fairly common for state players to play in boys’ club tournaments. Most of my contemporaries have all played with boys as there are no women set-ups to train outside the state set-up and the state camp is once or twice a year, so regular training is always with a boys’ team.”

The sad truth is that such incidents are not an aberration. Any woman who has actively followed or played a sport will have faced this sort of bias from the opposite gender some time, even if from initiated quarters. As someone interested in sport from the sidelines, I have had to deal with sexist comments on multiple occasions while only watching a match in a stadium, so it is not hard to imagine what women who pursue sport as a profession might have to face at the ground level.

There is no need to elaborate on the kind of bias sportswomen – or even women – have to face in India. Films like Chak De! India and Dangal did a good job of highlighting most of them – familial and social pressure, idle gossip, objectification, et al. However, it is not just this discrimination they have to fight. There is a bigger evil – apathy.

What can sportswomen do if the federations in charge of helping them develop don’t invest in them enough?

“Yes, we have faced discrimination from associations and sometimes the BCCI as well,” said Pradhan. “We are not treated as seriously as the boys’ team. Only a handful of state associations back their women’s program and invest in it. The level depends on the administration and changes from administration to administration, each had a different level of apathy.”

Pradhan has in the past actively campaigned for India Women to have their own social media account, when the scores of international women’s matches were tweeted by the BCCI Domestic handle, and to have live coverage of the women’s matches. A Twitter handle is a relatively a small thing, but it is indicative of the indifference women’s sport have to often put up with.

Spreading the word about India Women's Twitter account (Image credit: Facebook/Snehal Pradhan)
Spreading the word about India Women's Twitter account (Image credit: Facebook/Snehal Pradhan)

But then again, within this quagmire, there are the bright spots emerging – the stories of not just success, but of successful developments. The times they are a-changin’ indeed, in the words of a certain Nobel Laureate.

“Recently, we have changed the National Sports Development Code,” said George, who part of a nine-member government panel set up to come up with a uniform National Sports Development Code. “We are planning to give a proposal to all the federations about this code. I was a member of the committee, along with athletes like Abhinav Bindra and Prakash Padukone. We gave a proposal that went to the sports ministry and one the things in it was that among the participating athletes, men and women should be equal.”

In cricket, the recent overhaul by the Supreme Court meant that for the first time ever, there is proper player representation in the BCCI leadership. Diana Edulji, one of the leading lights of women’s cricket in India, is on the Committee of Administrators looking into BCCI’s affairs and we can be assured that she will continue to tirelessly champion her cause from her position as well. “The fact that there is a Lifetime Achievement Award for women is the first tangible difference it has made,” said Pradhan.

But perhaps the most heartening of things is how the women come together to support each other, in true spirit of the shine theory. Anjali Bhagwat recounted the life-changing relationship she shared with her fellow female shooters and how it helped them continue their careers.

“While we did not have any infrastructure or technical support or facilities, we survived in this arena due to our friendship – all five of us girl cadets started together and we were and are still are close like a family,” Bhagwat said, about the sisterhood between her comptempoary shooters – Suma Shirur, Deepali Deshpande, Anuja Jung, and Kuheli Gangulee.

“We were so united, so we could survive with each other’s help and each other’s motivation,” she added. “If I had been alone in this field, I would have quit long back. We were competitors but off field we were close and whatever problem I had during my training or my matches we used to discuss different solution, because we did not have any guidance we did not have coach during that time from each other’s knowledge and experience we grew together.”

Olympic medalist Sakshi Malik, at an event after her return to India, had also spoken about the support she got thanks to woman wrestlers in Haryana and how it developed the sport in her state. “I have seen a big change in the attitude towards girls taking to wrestling,” she said. “When I started we were only five or six girls in wrestling. The change started after the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi [where the Phogat sisters won medals]. Now, we have lesser mats and many more girls coming to play.”

It is nothing short of inspiring to see these women stand united and stand up for each others. This is the kind if support women need to become a force in Indian sport. We see it often, from the playground to the highest level, stories of women supporting each other.

Indian women raised the flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics (AFP/Reuters)
Indian women raised the flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics (AFP/Reuters)

Sportswomen have often spoken about how their families, parents and in-laws were very supportive and how they couldn’t have made it otherwise. In fact, a woman athlete might not be unable to make it to even the national stage without her family’s backing, as romantic as the notion sounds.

“Because of the support of the senior ladies of my family, I could give my 100% on the field as I didn’t have to worry about anything at home,” said Bhagwat. “Today, I can see that kind of support more and more as I am training young girls. The generation has changed, nowadays parents take so much interest and understand the importance of sport. I have seen mothers come and sit with their daughters and even pick the weapon and try it themselves.”

And we can all see the change, slowly but surely creeping in. The 2016 Olympics were further proof of that, as India’s women athletes left behind their male counterparts. Malik and Sindhu won medals, Karmakar and Sania Mirza (with Rohan Bopanna in mixed doubles) narrowly missed bronze, Aditi Ashok, Dutee Chand and Lalita Babar broke new ground, the Indian women’s hockey team actually qualified and competed tooth and nail.

This is the shift in perception and performance that gives hope for the current and upcoming generation of women athletes in India. For all the Da Da Ding ads and films like Dangal, it is also the impressive performances of India’s sportswomen that is bringing about a change – if not a systemic one in the majority mindset, at least a tangible one in the attitude towards women athletes. Yes, we need success stories for women’s sports to get more recognition, but we need more support and investment before getting there. All the stakeholders in Indian sport should be responsible for this – the sports ministry, associations, the support staff, the media and even the spectators and fans. This Women’s Day, here’s hoping that the times will indeed change for a woman playing sport in India.