|Image from here|
It is true that our dismal performance at the Rio Olympics was as much a reflection of national health as it was a reflection of our politicized sports federations. It is true that our regression from London to Rio warrants a drastic revamp. It is also true that sports are not a part of our socio-cultural ethos. And yet, despite all our shortcomings, the terrific trio of Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu managed to etch a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy month of August.
It all began when a young Dipa Karmakar pulled off a breathtaking vault, missed the bronze by a whisker but landed straight into our hearts with her toothy grin and earnest humility. Twitter, not exactly known for its kindness, supported Dipa by reinforcing that she was already a winner for being the first Indian gymnast to attempt the Vault of Death. Thereafter, when we saw Sakshi Malik’s opponents writhing on the mat, we wondered how an unassuming girl from a patriarchal state with a skewed sex ratio could show such aggression. And when PV Sindhu rose like a phoenix, slaying her opponents one smash at a time, the entire country was transfixed to their televisions, mobiles, laptops, and tablets. Sindhu lost the match but won a silver medal, underlining the truism that sports does not build character, sports reveals it. Harder the battle, sweeter the victory.
But the larger question remains. What exactly are we celebrating? Why are we feeling good about a brave attempt and two medals coming from a billion plus nation?
For one, there is something about sports that creates nationalistic camaraderie. Anticipation of a win by unknown players ignites unmatched patriotic fervor. Their struggle, their tears, their hopes, their pride – all become ours. And yet, such passion was hitherto reserved for cricket. To generate curiosity about other sports in a cricket crazy, Bollywood obsessed nation is no mean feat. It is telling that when it came to appointing brand ambassadors for Rio, Salman Khan and Sachin Tendulkar were the first on the list.
Second, for a nation that evinces little interest prior to the games but hopes to fill its empty medal shelves, the girls achieved something beyond medals. As the social media was awash with messages like, ‘we failed our girls but girls saved our pride’, it didn’t take long for the sub-text to become obvious. The trio did more than any lip service could do for the Prime Minister’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, the #SavetheGirlChild crusade or the symbolic #SelfieWithDaughter.
The idea is not to play the gender card because we know that our sportsmen deliver despite sporting federations and abysmal facilities, and not because of them. We know that it’s not only the lack of money (oil rich Arab nations should be churning out champions) but the lack of sporting culture that is our bane. We know that our kids excel at Math Olympiads and Spelling Bee competitions, but not as much at sports. And we also know that the barriers of societal pressure and parental obligations faced by Indian women, particularly from low income groups are almost insurmountable. So every time a small town girl like Mary Kom comes closer to an Olympic medal, she punctures the deep rooted misogyny that has become a part of our vocabulary. Don’t be such a girl. Girls in short dresses invite men. Don’t you have any balls? When will you settle down? It’s not a girl’s game. When a Whatsapp forward read, ‘Dipa’s Coach – Bisbeshwar. Sakshi’s Coach – Kuldeep. Sindhu’s coach – Gopi. It’s time for Indian men to say, behind every successful woman, there’s a man’ we realized that the trio had debunked some conventional biases.
Every smash from Sindhu, every stride from Dipa and every tackle by Sakshi discredited the narrow identity created by our societal norms. Rather unconsciously, the girls had charmed the nation. Whether their charm resided in their disarming smiles, their relentless pursuit, or earnest humility, it cannot be denied that these girls drove the nail right through the heart of ‘Fair and Lovely’ bogey. Albeit for a few days, the conventional 'beautiful' brigade was sidelined, no matter what they wore at Cannes, how pretty they looked at the Miss India pageant or how they sashayed at a fashion show.
All said our ambition of becoming a sporting nation looks distant. But what began with Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom in 2012 was underlined by girl power in the 2016. When we don’t look at medals as our only aim, we did take a small step forward in changing attitudes and exposing conventional biases. And for this reason alone we must celebrate. Because the girls are worth it.