The weaker sex? Who said that?

Ten years from now, 2016 may well appear the year that started a new revolution for Indian sportswomen. Or it may end up being one more blip on the Indian sporting scene, joining many others that highlighted potential only to fizzle out for lack of sufficient support and a well-oiled system. For now, however, it’s time to celebrate the coming of age of the Indian sportswoman.

P. V. Sindhu... as precious as any jewel in the Indian sports scene.   -  K. V. S. GIRI

Sakshi Malik... triumphing in what is essentially a man's sport.   -  PTI

Aditi Ashok... the golf horizon is looking good for her.   -  GETTY IMAGES

The year 2016 could well be called the Year of Indian Women in Sports. Breaking barriers and stereotypes, extending boundaries and overshadowing their male counterparts on the world stage, Indian sportswomen set new benchmarks in every field to announce their arrival.

It wasn’t an easy journey but then no ascent to the summit ever is. While women in Indian sports have always fought both systemic and societal prejudices to prove themselves, what set 2016 apart was the way they stepped up to claim their own space without the accompanying support structure. It was, in many ways, the coming of age of Indian women.

 

And the three girls that led the charge have not only become household names but icons and role models inspiring, hopefully, an entire generation of Indians to seek and build future in sports. Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar and P. V. Sindhu have done more for Indian sports than what years of efforts trying to instil gender parity have achieved. And what better stage to do it than the biggest of them all, the Olympics?

It began with Sindhu at Rio. A 21-year old who, till the beginning of this year, was constantly in the shadows of Saina Nehwal, her senior with an Olympic medal from London 2012 that made her the prima donna of Indian badminton. Despite Sindhu’s two back-to-back World Championship medals, her consistent showing at every major international competition and her gradual growth in stature, she remained the star-in-waiting even as Saina stayed at the forefront of not just the country’s hopes but also its adulation.

Saina’s early ouster at Rio pushed Sindhu into the spotlight. But not for nothing does coach Pullela Gopichand call his ward one of the strongest among there mentally and physically. Opponent after opponent, through the group stages and then the knockouts, all ranked higher than her, fell by the wayside as a new, aggressive and dominating Sindhu forked her way to the final.

That she ultimately fell to Spain’s World No. 1 Carolina Marin at the last step becomes insignificant in the context of what she did achieve. A silver at the Olympics is not to be trifled with. If anything, it has only motivated Sindhu to get better and get the elusive gold. In a sport that has not just been the hegemony but the virtual fiefdom of the Chinese, Sindhu blew away everyone not only with her game and her supreme stamina but also an aggression not seen even in many of her male counterparts.

 

It is a mark of the hard work she put in — specially coming as she did into the year on the back of a poor 2015 that saw her miss most of the year with injuries — that she went on to win the China Open Super Series and the Malaysia Masters as well post-Rio, besides avenging her Olympics loss to Marin at the World SuperSeries Finals in Dubai.

Sindhu wasn’t the only one to take the spotlight from more fancied compatriots in Rio. Sakshi Malik had lived all her life in the shadows of the more famous and decorated Geeta Phogat, part of the first family of Indian wrestling. It was nothing but luck that saw her name being forwarded for the final Olympic qualifier — after Geeta was dropped on disciplinary grounds — and from thereon, it was a dream come true for the 24-year-old on the back of years of challenging patriarchy, sniggering and the conservative society of small-town Rohtak in Haryana.

Despite losing early, Sakshi came back strongly in the repechage rounds, fighting off a series of competitors through a single day, including a magical bronze-medal bout where she overturned a huge deficit and scored the winner in the final 10 seconds. For a country that prides itself on its machismo, in a sport that is the ultimate test of male strength and pride, it was a woman who saved India the blushes on the biggest platform, ahead of superstars like Yogeshwar Dutt. What could have been a more satisfying rebuttal to all those who had been questioning her decision to pick up wrestling as a kid!

Even though it was Sakshi alone who made the podium, Vinesh Phogat deserves special mention. Vinesh was favourite for a medal as well, and she began well, her intent clear. A freak, debilitating injury in her second bout against Yanan Sun while leading ended her hopes prematurely — an accident that left everyone, including her opponent, stunned. She has only recently begun treading around carefully but without that injury, Vinesh would clearly have been the second Indian woman wrestler with a medal at Rio.

 

 

Even though India only returned with two medals from the Olympics, there were others who came close enough to keep hopes of a brighter future for Indian women in sports alive. Dipa Karmakar, a gymnast in a country that equates acrobatics with circus, fought more than just public perception. From the rural pockets of Tripura to Rio was a long road that she had been traversing, relentlessly, for more than a decade. It took more than just talent for her to finish fourth in the Olympics — after becoming the first Indian woman gymnast ever to qualify.

Dipa missed a medal by a whisker but when eventual champion and multiple medal winner Simone Biles, unanimously considered the next Nadia Comaneci, calls you “crazy enough” to perform something that only three women gymnasts ever have attempted before, with grudging admiration, you know you have left an impression on the world scene. Produnova is one of the most dangerous routines in gymnastics and Dipa keeps doing it, increasing her difficulty levels and training on apparatus not exactly the best in the world. That’s crazy enough, for sure.

The other Olympian who proved there was no substitute for years of tough grind was Lalita Babar. The 3000m steeplechase runner not only set a new personal and national record but also managed a decent 10th spot in the final placement. It may not mean a lot for the uninitiated but when placed against the fact that she was only the second Indian woman to reach the final since the legendary P. T. Usha in 1984, it becomes special. Unlike several others who qualified for Rio in a heap right at the end, Lalita had a more consistent graph, winning silver at the 2014 Asian Games and gold at the 2015 Asian Championships. Remarkably, she also qualified in the marathon for the Olympics but preferred to compete in her favourite event.

Also impressive was archer Bombayla Devi with her calm and controlled performance in both individual and team events. Even though the Indian women’s archery team failed to make much progress, Bombayla was outstanding, stepping up to take the first shot and ease the pressure almost every time with precise targets. While the country looked up to Deepika Kumari for a medal, Bombayla proved she was no-one’s sidekick either.

Sania Mirza, on the other hand, failed to make the podium at Rio but more than made up for it on the professional circuit. Starting the year with her third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, partnering Martina Hingis, Sania went on to win four more titles through the year to finish as No. 1 for the second straight year, a remarkable achievement in the gruelling world of professional tennis. Her split with Hingis, however, was a low point.

Speaking of low points, Aditi Ashok made sure there would be none of those on the golf course at least. It was a remarkable maiden year for the 18-year old who turned professional only in January. She qualified and participated at Rio, the youngest and least experienced woman golfer in the fray there. She won two back-to-back titles on the Ladies European Tour — something no Indian woman golfer has done before — winning the Indian Open at home to become its first-ever home champion and the Qatar Open. She capped the performance by winning the prestigious LET Rookie of the Year award and earning her full card on the Ladies PGA tour for 2017.

Also proving their mark were the Indian women’s hockey players. The last time the team participated in the Olympics was in 1980, on invitation. This time, they went there on merit, having qualified for the Games. That, in itself, was a huge step forward for the sport that, despite all its glorious history, has forever treated its women as second-class citizens. There were little hopes from the team at Rio but for the 16 young women who went there, it was an achievement and experience beyond anything. That experience and confidence paid off when the team returned with its maiden Asian Champions Trophy title, getting the better of teams like China, Japan and Korea, all ranked above it in the world.

Away from the flash bulbs, and on a different kind of turf, Aditi Chauhan made waves of her own last year by becoming the first Indian woman footballer to sign up for an English Premier League club when she joined the West Ham United Ladies. Ironic since, given the kind of fan following EPL clubs enjoy in India, who would have thought that a woman footballer would be knocking on the doors of top-level football in England before the men could aspire to?

Though she had to return following her inability to continue for lack of a work visa, this year saw her go through the procedures and rejoin the team as a full-blown professional, adding to her achievements as the national team goalkeeper which include gold at the SAF Games early in the year.

And then there was Tajamul Islam who, at eight, not only became the youngest Indian world champion in any sport but also brought the little-known discipline of kickboxing into the spotlight. Winning six bouts over five days to claim the sub-junior category crown in Italy against opponents from 90 countries, the Standard II student from Bandipora in Kashmir valley proved there was more to the state than politics and endeared herself in equal measure with both her confidence and strength.

An Olympic year invariably brings into the spotlight sports that, at other times, are consigned to the background by cricket. It is the only time, every four years, that sees cricket yield its supremacy, albeit temporarily and for a very brief while, to the rest. But that’s for the men. For India’s woman cricketers, the struggle to seek recognition is as much as in other sports. In 2016, however, two youngsters trod new grounds in their search for fame.

Harmanpreet Kaur has been spoken of as the next big thing in Indian cricket for quite a while now and the Indian one-day captain has proven her worth time and again. Her ability to hit the ball cleanly and over huge distances has helped women’s cricket live down talk of being slow and boring and her aggression on the field is a welcome change. Her bowling abilities make her the complete package and a successor to both Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, in batting and bowling respectively, and that’s saying a lot. An epitome of the new generation of Indian woman sportspersons, Harmanpreet believes in giving it back as well as she gets and her proficiency with invectives on the field would delight Virat Kohli.

While the Indian men are not allowed to play in any of the foreign T20 leagues, Harmanpreet became the first Indian and only the second overseas player this season to sign up for the Sydney Thunders in the Australian Women’s Big Bash League and left quite an impression, picking up the Player of the Match award in the team’s first victory.

She was followed into the WBBL by Smriti Mandhana (Brisbane Heat), a 20-year old bespectacled youngster who was the only Indian woman in the International Cricket Council’s Team of the Year 2016. Smriti has a double century in a one-day game, is unafraid at the crease and is considered among the most talented players of this generation. As a team, the Indian women won the T20 Asia Cup but bowed out of the T20 World Cup at home.

Ten years from now, 2016 may well appear the year that started a new revolution for Indian sportswomen. Or it may end up being one more blip on the Indian sporting scene, joining many others that highlighted potential only to fizzle out for lack of sufficient support and a well-oiled system. For now, however, it’s time to celebrate the coming of age of the Indian sportswoman.