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India's long walk to Olympic glory

Many athletes, especially women, fought patriarchy and poverty to end the nation's medal drought at the Tokyo Games

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: August 10, 2021 03:57 AM GMT

Updated: August 10, 2021 04:01 AM GMT

India's long walk to Olympic glory

Neeraj Chopra, who won an Olympic gold medal in the javelin event in Tokyo, exemplifies the newly found enthusiasm among humble Indians to take up sports. (Photo: AFP)

For a long time, Indians believed in the old dictum that one could win or lose but what is important is the game. The show must go on in the spirit of the game.

When India came back empty-handed from the Olympic Games every four years, there would be no post-mortem examination of the failures.

But India proved to be a changed nation at the recent Tokyo Olympics. Her athletes were hungry for a win.

For the first time since its independence in 1947, the nation of 1.3 billion people finished with seven medals, including a coveted gold in the men's javelin throw.

The Indian men’s hockey team made history as it claimed an Olympic medal after 41 years. Overall, India finished 48th among the participating nations.  

From its president to the prime minister, from celebrities in sports and films to the rich and poor, the whole nation has been rejoicing.

Tokyo 2020 for India marks a turning point from a social point of view. This is proving an era of the underdog

Olympic fever has gripped the nation, which just weeks ago looked demoralized fighting a long battle with the Covid-19 pandemic, joblessness and monsoon floods in many parts.

“I always wanted to see an Indian win an Olympic gold [in athletics],” said India’s former star sprinter P.T. Usha, who finished fourth in Los Angeles in 1984.

Like her, the stars emerging from Tokyo were mostly the underdogs of society. Sports for them happily proved to be a tool to achieve social mobility. The revolution against poverty and patriarchy is truly happening, or so it seems.

“Tokyo 2020 for India marks a turning point from a social point of view. This is proving an era of the underdog. Many, especially the women of Haryana in northern India, have successfully fought patriarchy and poverty in search of a better life,” sports journalist A. Andalib said.

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Thomas Ngullie, a former minister from Nagaland in northeast India, agreed: “Athletics and boxing are not a rich man’s sport in India. Unlike cricket stars from Delhi and Mumbai, these young boys and girls often come from humble backgrounds,” he told UCA News.

A few still stay in mud houses. Sports proved a game changer for them.

For a long time, Indian boys and girls focused on the classroom, aiming to be doctors, engineers, management professionals or top bureaucrats.

The Indian education system still values the ability to mug up what is given in textbooks and reproduce it verbatim in examinations.

Sport was never important for the educated middle classes.

That began to change perhaps in 1983 when India lifted the world cup for cricket in England. That drove the nation to become cricket crazy. But other sports continued to be neglected.

That began to change with the globalization of India’s economy in the early nineties and the information technology (IT) revolution that followed, taking internet connectivity and mobile handsets to remote villages.

Still, the evils of old persisted. In a state like Haryana, which has emerged as a Mecca of sports in recent decades, social conservatism and male chauvinism continue to dominate.

Male child preference led to a poor gender ratio of 877 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2012, with only a marginal improvement of 922 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2020. A similar situation prevailed in most Indian states.

Unlike in the past, we now have many parents coming to enroll their daughters for training

Parents and communities in Haryana imposed specific dress codes requiring girls to cover their bodies properly along with restrictions on their free movement, including while attending school.

A village council in Haryana’s Jind district even issued a diktat reducing women’s marriage age to 16 years from the government prescribed 18 years. This was purportedly done to check the growing number of rapes.

“The pronouncements from kangaroo courts are usually followed with the government looking the other way. So, when a girl’s parents agree to her playing a game like hockey wearing the required sportswear, it’s no less than a silent revolution,” political observer Vidyarthi Kumar said.

Women’s hockey player Parasdeep Kaur still recalls how people would tell her father that she should be married off without further delay. Little wonder that she is the only one pursuing the game from her village. 

But things are changing. “Unlike in the past, we now have many parents coming to enroll their daughters for training,” said Sukhwinder Singh, who runs a training academy for hockey some 170 kilometers from capital Delhi.

There is also a paradox. Despite patriarchy and conservatism, Haryana dominated India's Olympic squad, with 25 percent of Indian athletes in Tokyo drawn from the state whose population is slightly over 2 percent of the national population.

Neeraj Chopra, the 23-year-old son of a humble farmer who made this India’s best Olympics ever by winning a gold medal in the javelin, also hails from Haryana.

He exemplifies the newly found enthusiasm among ordinary rural Indians to encourage their children to take up sports.

Most boxers come from rural families with little support, seeking sustenance and social security in sports

Bronze medal-winning boxer Lovlina Borgohain comes from another development-starved place called Sarupathar in the northeastern state of Assam.

Even in the new millennium, most people from the place do not know how to use a mobile phone. They would be mocked and teased by their city cousins

Today, the nondescript village boasts an Olympic medalist.

Indian women hockey player Salima Tete from Jharkhand in eastern India still lives in a mud house. For her, the hockey stick and ball serve as a means to improve her family’s lot.

Social media was shocked to find a photograph of Manipur weightlifter Mirabai Chanu sitting on the floor to eat a meal. She also took daily lifts from unknown truckers to reach a stadium for practice from her village Nongpok Kakching.

Gurbax Singh, a former national boxing coach, summed up her story thus: “Most boxers come from rural families with little support, seeking sustenance and social security in sports. If this trend persists, Indian sports are set for a mega upheaval,” he told journalists.

Women’s hockey team captain Rani Rampal’s father pulled a hand-cart while her mother worked as a domestic help. There are many other success stories of athletes rising from penury to winning medals and social respectability.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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