When weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won the bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, it was a historic moment for India. She became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics and for 12 years, she was the only one, before Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom joined the list in London.
Cut to 2016, the only two Indian medalists at the Rio Games were women. Sakshi Malik became the first female wrestler and PV Sindhu the first woman silver medallist for India at the Olympics.
It has been a slow, but steady rise for Indian women athletes at world events in the last 20 years. In the early 2000s, it was rare to see Indian women on the podium at world events, most of Indian women’s medals came from the continental championships, or the Commonwealth and Asian Games. But the last eight years have seen Indian woman athletes climb the ranks at the highest level.
After Malleswari, the next big medal for Indian women came in 2003, when Anju Bobby George became the first Indian – and only so far – to win a medal at the prestigious IAAF World Athletics Championship.
While no other Indian, male or female, has won a medal at the IAAF Worlds since, India women’s medals at World Championships of other sports have been increasing. The year 2017 saw five World Championship medals across archery, badminton, chess and weightlifting – India’s best numerically. Five in a year may not seem like a lot, but it is a definite mark of progress.
Look at the bigger picture and you’ll see that the medals for Indian women at the world and continental levels are not a flash in the pan performance from one breakout athlete anymore. They are – as a group – consistently raising the bar and the medal tally.
The turning point, statistically, was 2010, the year India hosted the Commonwealth Games. As hosts, India poured in a huge sum of money in training and exposure. And despite the unsavory elements around the money allocation and corruption charges, the influx of cash for training proved to be beneficial for Indian athletes.
The increase in investment at the ground level with the 2010 Games in mind meant better training facilities, which in turn produced good results and helped get better facilities and personnel which set up domino effect in terms of performance.
India’s overall performance at the Commonwealth level increased by almost 50, from 50 medals in 2006 to 101 medals as hosts. Of these, 36 medallists were women, a significant increase from 13 in 2006. Similarly, there was a rise in Asiad medals as well, with 2014 being the best showing for India’s women athletes.
Since 2010, Indian women have won 276 medal across Asian and World Championships, Commonwealth and Asian Games. The numbers at the continental championships are clearly better, due to the difference in the quality and quantity of competition.
These performances at events with a smaller field are gradually translating in to results at the highest level. The keyword here is consistency, the female athletes are building on their results at the international level.
For instance, Nehwal won her first Commonwealth gold at the 2010 Games, followed it with a bronze at the 2012 Olympics and silver at the 2015 World Championships. Deepika Kumar won gold in Delhi 2010 and was part of the silver winning team at the 2011 and 2015 World Championship.
Simply put, the marked increase in performance at the continental and Commonwealth Games means that they have a better chance at the world level now, not just the World Championship where they have made inroads, but also the Olympics which is still a Final Frontier of sorts.
However, there is still a sizeable slip between the Asian/Commonwealth and the world level to overcome.
Take shooting for example, a sport India does well. Only one woman has won a medal at the International Shooting Sports Federation’s World championship – Tejaswini Sawant in 50m Rifle Prone and India has no Olympic medal in women’s shooting despite it being the second in number of medals won by Indian women.
Athletics is first, by virtue of its disciplines and India’s performance at the Asian level. Then come weightlifting, boxing, wrestling and archery which has a good number of medals – given the number of disciplines.
But the one individual sport that stands out in terms of performance is badminton with steady, consistent medal-winning performances in the last eight years with 15 out of 16 medals shared between five women – Aparna Popat, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and the pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa. (The other was a team medal.)
Nehwal and Sindhu are perhaps among the best examples of the positive chain reaction a good performance can have. The face of women’s wrestling in India changed after Geeta Phogat won India’s first ever gold medal in wrestling at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Mary Kom was a five time World Championship gold medallist before her Olympic medal. These are the kind of performances that blaze the trail for other women ahead of them.
And these are largely individual, Olympic sports. There have been huge strides forward in team sports like cricket and hockey as well.
After losing the final of the World Cup in 2005, India stormed through the final in 2017 and came very close to the title. They lifted the Asia Cup six out of six times and earlier this year became the first Indian team win to a bilateral series in South Africa. In the meantime, India veterans Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami became the world’s leading run-getter and wicket-takers in ODI history.
In hockey, while the women’s team has never been as prolific as the men’s, they have been a strong unit in patches. They won the gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and a silver in 2006 as well as bronze medals at the 2006 and 2014 Asian Games. But the big impetus came very recently as they qualified for the 2016 Rio Games, won the Asian Champions Trophy in 2016 and lifted the Asia Cup in 2017, qualifying for the World Cup after eight years in the process. The basketball team got promoted to Division A in Asia after a thrilling final win against Kazakhstan in the Asia Cup final.
With performances like these, the hope this Women’s Day is to see India’s female athletes go faster, higher and stronger. We are back in the big-winning year of Commonwealth and Asian Games, and given the performance of India’s women athletes in the last 12 months, it is a reasonable hope to see the medals increase. That’s what the numbers say.