Sindhu, Sakshi and the lessons they have taught

The dust has settled in Rio and now we need to learn about moving forward and constantly improving. I am worried that we will raise a toast to these wonderful women athletes and then forget about them and their hard work. That should not happen.

P. V. Sindhu with her proud parents and coach, Pullela Gopichand.   -  AP

Sakshi Malik, who became the first Indian woman to win a medal in wrestling, is given a warm welcome at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. The bronze she won is of immense significance.   -  PTI

The medal-triumphs of P. V. Sindhu (silver) and Sakshi Malik (bronze) in the women’s badminton and wrestling 58 kg category respectively, is a good trend, I must say.

 

It is especially heartening that Sakshi is from a State like Haryana, which is a male-dominated State with a skewed male-female sex ratio (Haryana has a poor ratio of 879 females per 1000 males). Hailing from such a State, I am thrilled that Sakshi came to the fore, with obvious encouragement from her parents and well-wishers, and through her own drive, ambition and grit, wrested a medal. The manner in which she defeated Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova 8-5 in the bronze medal bout after trailing 0-5, speaks volumes about her tenacity.

Sindhu too never gave up and she competed hard till the very end in the final against Spain’s Carolina Marin. She is from the South, where relatively girls do get better encouragement to excel in sports and so credit is also due to her parents and coach (Pullela) Gopichand.

Surely the sporting culture in the country is changing and more so with regard to women athletes. Sindhu and Sakshi provided the silver-lining, while to be honest it has been a below-par Olympics as far as the Indian contingent is concerned. Be it hockey or shooting, we did not perform up to expectations.

The two medals from our women have left the entire nation gaga and truth be told, we are all hungry for more medals. It is no longer about participation, it is also about winning. Sindhu and Sakshi deserve all the accolades. If there were two traits that distinguished them, it is grit and determination. Our biggest stars failed but these two excelled and they are truly an inspiration to our emerging athletes, be it male or female.

In Sindhu’s case, her parents, both former volleyball players, understood what sport meant and also encouraged her. They understood the sacrifices that have to be made if success has to be embraced in sport.

Sakshi’s story is incredible. Her father, a bus conductor, encouraged her and though there was resistance from the community, the will of Sakshi prevailed. She wrestled with boys and persevered. Her achievement is also good for Rohtak, her hometown in Haryana. Rohtak will get the needed sporting recognition that Hyderabad (Sindhu’s hometown) has already got in the past. Sakshi’s tale proves that athletes in suburban and rural areas have that extra hunger and drive that we need to tap into.

 

Until recently, when it came to women and athletics, it was always about the traditional 4x400m relay. Dipa Karmakar (from Tripura) in gymnastics and Lalita Babar (10th in the women’s 3000m steeplechase) are also inspirational. Hailing from the drought-prone Satara district in Maharashtra, Lalita worked her way up in athletics from an area where girls were not expected to do that. These are the inspirational stories that need to be told by the media and these are the heroes that need to be nourished, not activists, who get some attention and then vanish.

With these girls breaking taboos about Indian women in sport, India’s sports infrastructure has a huge challenge ahead — nurturing emerging talent and widening the base. Be it these athletes or earlier Mary Kom in boxing, they all may be in the league of celebrities but getting to where they did — competing in the Olympics and in some cases, wresting medals too, is a huge achievement, indeed.

It takes 10 to 12 years of pure effort to get an Olympic medal and it matters a hell a lot. That’s why you see Novak Djokovic crying after his first round loss to Juan Martin del Potro, because an Olympic medal matters to him more than anything else.

 

The dust has settled in Rio and now we need to learn about moving forward and constantly improving. I am worried that we will raise a toast to these wonderful women athletes and then forget about them and their hard work. That should not happen.

We need systems in place and we need capacity-expansion both in terms of numbers and infrastructure. We need answers for simple questions like how do we get trainers in various fields? I have appealed to the Prime Minister to look into it. We need accountability. We have had stories like the one involving former Indian Olympic Association secretary Lalit Bhanot, who was scam-tainted.

READ: >Sindhu comes of age

It is time we accept that as a nation, we have gone beyond a mere qualification. We need medals. We also need to give recognition. I believe (golfer) Aditi Ashok did not get the recognition she deserved. Her dad has made sacrifices for her and we need to back her, like other female athletes and the athletic fraternity in general.

I would appreciate if the Lodha Committee recommendations meant for cricket are implemented for other sports bodies too. We have Nita Ambani in the Olympic committee and it is time to run sport in India like a corporate. We have supreme former athletes like Sriram Singh cast away in a corner. We need to change the atmosphere and have more former athletes in sports administration.

Our Prime Minister has coined a slogan about ‘Make in India,’ we should apply that to sport too. Recently in a paralympic meet, the Indian contingent’s medical support consisted of a dentist! We need to reverse such trends.

READ: >Hats off to Sakshi's resilience

In my time as an athlete, barring P. T. Usha, none of us got adequate exposure other than a four-week training programme in Germany. An unknown coach would accompany us and we didn’t learn much. At least Usha had her coach O. M. Nambiar. A right coach makes a huge difference.

Look at Gopi (Gopichand) and Sindhu.

We have had all sorts of coaches coming in from the former Soviet Union, and assisting at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. Not all were qualified. There is also the stigma of doping in our athletics and we need to accept the truth and find solutions. It is also time to do mandatory pre-event testing.

There is also the question of harassment (sexual or otherwise) and it is a reality that is there in life in general and also in sport. I was the chairman of the committee that enquired into the suicide-pact of girls in a SAI Hostel in Alleppey (Kerala), last year, where one died.

Gopi (Gopichand) was also part of the committee and he broke down on seeing the condition of the athletes.

These were basically young children and youth, who loved sport but struggled to get decent facilities. Cramped rooms, minimal toilets, even buying a sanitary pad was an ordeal and it was terrible. I did submit a report, but with ministers changing, I presume it is gathering dust somewhere.

We need a clear pathway. I was a product of school athletics, but now that and university athletics are almost dead. We need to train the athletes well, also certify the PT masters in schools and we need to give employment to athletes. We also need to focus on teaching communication skills.

There has to be a change in policy as well as perception. Sport should not be seen as merely recreational. It has to be considered as promoting health and even if the government sanctions 0.1 per cent of the health budget for sport, we will be well served. We can even merge the sports ministry with the HRD ministry.

I am fine with incentives for winning athletes, but please don’t give any incentives for a mere qualification. We need answers too. Triple-jumper Renjith Maheshwary does 17.30m in the Olympic qualifiers, but in the Olympics, he got past 16m probably once. We also need not be carried away with sentiment, Leander Paes is a legend, but did we err in granting him a seventh Olympics?

And as for feminists harping on women power, to be honest I never believed in such stuff. Yes, our women did well and it is a good sign, but to give it a feminist spin doesn’t augur well. Let us focus on capacity-expansion, accountability and the right path so that our athletes, both men and women, stay clean and win medals. For now, let us laud both Sindhu and Sakshi.