This article was written after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
I’m watching two women play a game of badminton on the television. Not just any game – but the women’s finals at the Rio Olympics. My chirping phone makes me aware that millions across the world are also watching the match. It’s a close contest between PV Sindhu from India and Carolina Marin from Spain. I find myself holding my breath every time Sindhu loses a point and doing a mental jig whenever she scores. Finally, the game ends with the gold medal won by Carolina Marin. Despite my initial disappointment, pride fills me to see Sindhu on the victory stand.
It has been several weeks since this game but I still remember those nail-biting moments when I watched the two players battle for the gold. All the media outlets in India featured the Olympics front and center when the games were underway. The nation watched with bated breath, to see if any Indian made it to the finals. Every time a hopeful athlete left the fray it felt as if the entire nation sighed. Soon it was down to three women – a badminton player, a golfer, and a wrestler, that the nation pinned its hopes on.
Did we ever wonder how these Olympic hopefuls even made it this far? Being an athlete in India has never been easy. And being a woman athlete is twice as hard. They’ve struggled to get access to good facilities and money to make ends meet. Sometimes their challenges have been worse than their male counterparts.
They’ve had to ignore the questions and belittling comments of neighbours, relatives, and their communities. How inappropriate it was for women to be in the gym or at the track. How will they ever get married? They’ve had to ignore the leery glances of men who stared at their legs when they ran against the wind or lifted weights. Many of our women athletes like the boxers, wrestlers, and track & field are from rural areas and poor backgrounds. They have had little or no financial backing. Their burning desire to succeed and the support of coaches and family was what had gotten them to Rio. Every athlete who has participated in any Olympics from the Indian subcontinent is undeniably a hero. One who deserved a medal for their sheer grit to have gotten thus far.
As the results of every game were declared during the Rio Olympics we wondered what had gone wrong. Why were the Indian athletes not winning? We discussed, dissected and apportioned blame. When a well-known writer tweeted about how the participants returned home empty-handed, thousands of voices rose in protest against the insensitivity of the tweet. But why wasn’t there enough being done to help these participants with their training and preparation?
One athlete revealed how she had to travel in the economy class while the sports officials traveled in business class. Even as the barely-rested athlete got on the field a few hours after arriving in Rio, the officials were busy hitting the beaches. This time, both mainstream and social media did make a hue and cry about our priorities.
What have been the lessons garnered after the Rio Olympics? Asking questions while a good start is just that. Raised voices need to translate into real action on the ground. Let us each start in our hometowns – pick a sport, get to know who the officials are, and begin asking them what they are doing to help our athletes now. Perhaps in Tokyo 2020 we will see a different India.