To those who told me I am a Girl and I couldn’t wrestle, I want to say please show some trust, Girls can do everything! – Sakshi Malik, Rio Olympics, Bronze medal, Freestyle wrestling – 2016.
We have all heard of the Olympic Games, the most prestigious sporting event in the world, conducted every four years. These games began in early 776 BC in Ancient Greece and continued till 393 AD. It was restarted in 1896 and has continued ever since. But the Olympic Journey for women has been one filled with obstacles and problems and obviously, the biggest one being pre-existing gender norms. In ancient times, women weren’t allowed to even watch the games. They could only watch it if they weren’t married and it was not until 1900 that the first ever contingent of women entered the Olympic Games after the International Olympic Committee’s oath to uphold Gender Equality.
It was the Swiss Sailer Hélène de Pourtalès who became the first woman olympian as well as the first Olympic Champion. After this, the Olympics began to evolve and improve and more women events were added across the years. Even after all this, there are still 39 events where men participate but women aren’t allowed to.
There were and still are huge internal inequalities present within the Olympics like the fact that in 2012, The Japanese Women’s football team flew economy class while the men flew business class. Or when many national olympic committees sent fewer women as they “supposedly” needed chaperones while the men didn’t. Even amidst all this, there are lots of women that are fighting with the hope that society will change.
When it came to Indian Olympic Women, the situation was even more complicated. India being a country where pursuing any sport that wasn’t Cricket was de-prioritised over Academics, becoming an Olympic athlete itself was difficult and considered a great achievement. It was all the more harder for women who were supposed to stay at home and not go outside, let alone go to the Olympics. Despite these traditional barriers and no support, some Indian Women didn’t back down and this article sings their stories.
Women first entered the Olympics in 1900 but it took another 52 years for Indian Women to become Olympians, which first happened in the form of 17 year old Nilima Ghose who participated in the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles along with Mary D’Souza who took part in 100m and 200m sprint in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
It wasn’t until 48 years later that an Indian Woman won an Olympic medal and since then, five more heroic women have achieved this feat. We are sure that it will not stop there.
The first ever Indian woman to win an Olympic medal was the legendary Karnam Malleswari. Hailing from Andhra Pradesh and believed to have been way past her prime when the 2000 Sydney Olympics came along, she defied all odds, changing her weight category just before the games and ignoring demotivating and unfavourable comments on her form, she went on to win India’s First ever medal, a bronze medal for weightlifting under the 69kg category etching history.
Then came Saina Nehwal who beat all odds to become one of the greatest female Badminton players ever and won India’s second medal as a woman, another Bronze at the London Olympics in 2012.
She was followed by the great Mary Kom whose sensational story of overcoming all obstacles inspires women around the globe. Not supported by her father who thought boxing was a male sport and his insistence that Mary should get married, made her more resilient when she took the world by storm and became world champion. But going to the 2012 Olympics had even more problems. Mary was forced to enter a new weight category and also without her coach. But not letting any of it stop her, she too bagged a bronze medal collecting India’s Third.
The fourth medal and the first ever silver medal was bagged by Pusarla V Sindhu who at the mere age of 21, cruised till the finals of the Rio Olympics and despite going down in the finals to top seed Carolina Marin, made history by winning the Silver and is going strong even now in the ongoing 2021 Tokyo Olympics with the support of the entire nation with her.
The fifth medal came from the wonderful Sakshi Malik who, inspired by her grandfather, took up wrestling, beat China’s Zhang Lan to qualify for the 2016 olympics and beat Aisuluu Tynybekova in the repechage medal playoff, coming back from being 0-5 down to win 8-5 and clinch India’s first female wrestling medal (bronze) and fifth overall.
The latest medal is yet another Silver that has come in the ongoing Tokyo Olympics from the inspirational Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, who has now become the second Indian female weightlifter to win an Olympic medal, overcoming all obstacles, including the pandemic. An interesting story about her is when her parents recognised her talent at the age of 12 when she could effortlessly lift and hold a considerably large quantity of wood branches when her elder brother couldn’t even pick them up.
She’s out here now winning medals for the country.
So these are the stories of the six inspirational Indian women who broke barriers to attain Olympic Glory but they aren’t the only ones. There are still many Indian women who overcame various hardships and struggles and are fighting for the Olympic Medal.
The count is still on, and we sit with bated breath wishing you all the best.