London: Two of the four medals won by India as yet in these Olympics have come through women— Saina Nehwal in badminton and M C Mary Kom in boxing— establishing the case for their greater participation in sports in the country.
There were 23 women in India’s 81-strong contingent for London, and while this is a big improvement from previous Olympics, it still falls way short of the ration for countries like the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, Jamaica, Australia, Japan, South and North Korea et al.
Indeed, the US contingent this time boasted of more women athletes than men. While this ratio is not necessarily the index to absolute gender-equality, (women CEOs in the US are still fewer than men for instance, and there has not been a single lady head of state yet) participating in sport does reflect on greater freedom and opportunity for women.
Seen through the matrix of probability, if more women participate in sports, the greater a country’s chances of winning medals. This doesn’t imply that in an 80-strong contingent if you had 40 men and 40 women, the medals would grow exponentially.
But it stands to that if you keep 50 per cent of your population away from sport, your chances of producing champions and winning medals is eroded to that extent. In India, as in so many other countries in Asia, Asia, and the Middle East still bedeviled by strong gender bias, this finds telling expression in performance in sport and the medals table at the Olympics.
Limiting the argument to India, it has now become abundantly clear that when given the opportunity – or if they have taken it themselves – women have delivered to expectations if not exceeded them in sport.
Yet, the number of women sportspersons is still miniscule, and is the one area that needs immediate attention. If you look at the number of registered players for different sports, women hover around the 15 per cent mark— in some sports markedly less. From a sports point of view, this is a no-win situation.
But getting women into sports demands social emancipation. Alas, India’s track record where even the basic rights of women are concerned is shameful to say the least, so the battle is grim and all uphill.
Even Mary Kom, who comes from the North East— where it is believed that gender bias is not as debilitating as say Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and some other states, had to plough a lone furrow, defy cynics and skeptics for more than a dozen years and struggle against heavy odds to reach where she did.
Not everybody can be as full of gumption and as strong-willed as Mary Kom. Young girls across the country are sidelined from playing sport because its not considered a feminine thing to do— that is if they are allowed so much to even study and not married off early and start families.
It is simplistic to believe a robust sports ministry alone can make India a sporting nation. True, efficiently-run federations will enhance the scope of athletes and bring out more champions. But that would still be half the potential number unless women become part of the sports mainstream too.
To effect this, what is needed is a major shift in mind-set, especially of parents, families, schools and sports teachers. Girls need to be freed to play; to actualize and express their sporting ability. This, according to me, will be a quantum leap towards becoming a sporting nation— assuming that financial resources and infrastructure will be available.
Only then will India be able to realize its own prowess in sport.