After 12 medal-less days, India’s largest ever contingent at the Olympics in days 13 and 14 of the competition saw two: a bronze and a silver, both won by women. Sakshi Malik won India’s first women’s wrestling medal in the 58 kg freestyle category with her bronze. Meanwhile, PV Sindhu smashed her way to a silver medal in women’s individual badminton – and became the first Indian woman to bring home a silver. After Karnam Malleshwari (bronze, wrestling – Sydney, 2000), Mary Kom (bronze, boxing – London, 2012), and Saina Nehwal (bronze, badminton – London, 2012), they are the fourth and fifth Indian women to ever win Olympic medals and bring the country’s total Olympic medal tally to 28 over the years.
The best stories of India’s performance in Rio seem to be from women. Aditi Ashok is still going strong and raising the hopes of a medal in golf. Gymnast Dipa Karmakar placed fourth in the vault – losing out on a medal by 0.15 points. Further, her execution of the potentially lethal, extremely tricky Produnova vault brought her showers of praise – and she concluded with a personal best of 15.066.
While in splendid ways, these women took fantastic stabs at the glass ceiling in Indian sports, the larger context they emerge from is far more grim than it needs to be. Karmakar began her training journey with a woeful lack of equipment and used makeshift apparatus like piled up mats in lieu of a table. She continued to practice with out-of-date equipment even three months prior to her departure to Rio. Further, her request to bring her personal physiotherapist with her to Rio was rejected by government officials as “wasteful expenditure” – and he was ultimately flown to help her, in a hurry, once she made the finals.
Malik’s story when she started out faced different hurdles. Although she is not the first sportswoman or the first female wrestler from her state, Haryana, she faced disapproval, disparaging sexist remarks, and opposition from those around her. Some even protested to her family, who luckily stood firm, until she began winning internationally.
Their tales, however, are not just ones that are an outcome of sexism, but of deep seated indifference to building adequate, holistic, and sustained sporting infrastructure within the nation. Academies like the one PV Sindhu trained in (set up by her coach and legendary badminton player, Pullela Gopichand) are not common across the country or even common to all sport. Abhinav Bindra, a former Olympic Gold medalist in shooting, has tweeted about the lack of infrastructural support and systems in place.
On record, he went on to say: “The only athletes who get supported in India by the establishment are the ones who’ve made it to the Everest level. The ones at the [grassroots] are left to fend for themselves. It’s only after you win, that you get any government attention. This sort of system and planning cannot produce champions.”
The wishes have already started pouring in for Sindhu, and Malik has been at the receiving end of multiple accolades. The country that had been clamoring for medals has been temporarily satiated. But if a medal streak is what India is going for in future tournaments, it is important that the appropriate facilities and access are provided, rather than just a collection of heroic stories that begin with dire circumstances.