Sakshi Malik and other women at Rio Olympics 2016 say, ‘beti bachao, medal pao’

Sakshi Malik has opened India's account at the Games; PV Sindhu is in the race for a gold; Dipa Karmakar created history by reaching the finals of Gymnastics where she narrowly missed a podium finish; Lalita Babar became the first athlete to compete in the finals after 1984 and the archers almost had a medal in their pocket before they lost because of one terrible shot.

In a dull and depressing Olympic journey, Indian women athletes are creating their own milestones. India's honour is being restored at Rio by the grit and determination of a handful of brave women.

 Sakshi Malik and other women at Rio Olympics 2016 say, ‘beti bachao, medal pao’

PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar.

The winners at Rio this year are not from rich, urban families spoiled by facilities and excessive attention. Some of them were raised on India's parched fields, in drought-prone cities that are so alienated from the mainstream that you hear their names only when people die of hunger and thirst. Some rose from abject poverty, in families where the only bread winner was a rickshaw puller. And some survived societies that kill girls before birth.

Consider the irony: India's first medal has been won by a girl from Haryana, the state with the lowest sex ratio in the country. Haryana is 31st among Indian States and Union Territories on sex ratio. For every 1000 men in the state, there are just 877 women. Rough estimates indicate around 35,000 girls are killed in Haryana every year, implying an entire generation has been wiped out since Independence. Haryana accounts for 2.2 percent of child births in India. But, it kills four per cent of Indian girls every year.

From this patriarchal society that has killed lakhs of girls has emerged the only medal winner in a country of 1.25 billion. The clear message: Beti bachao, medal pao. (Save girls, win medals.)

Haryana's contribution to the medal tally could have been bigger had Vinesh Phogat not been injured during her quarterfinal bout against a Chinese wrestler. Phogat, who was ahead of her rival and just a fight away from a medal, tore a ligament and had to quit midway.

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In many ways, Sakshi Malik's medal is a fitting finale to the sporting revolution started by just one girl from Haryana: Geeta Phogat.

Wrestling and kabaddi are traditional sports of the Haryanvis. Several studies have shown that children brought up in communities that have a strong sporting tradition have the best chance to progress to higher levels. This is primarily because the community's inherited knowledge (and genes) are passed on to players at an early age, giving them a head start over others.

Haryanvi girls are naturally built for sports. They are tall and lean with strong and long limbs; years of hard work in the fields gives them huge appetite for hard work and resolve to deal with adversity.

Had the Indian scouts looked for talent in the Haryana gene pool, by now the state could have produced winners by dozens. But, the state started producing world-class wrestlers only after Geeta Phogat and her sisters — Babita and Vinesh — of Balali defied patriarchy, conservatism and societal opposition to step into the akhara and became role models for girls.

Every sport needs a trailblazer. India became a factory of world-class badminton players after P Gopichand won the All England and then started his academy. In the last decade, India started producing top-class boxers because of the exploits of Akhil Kumar and Vijender Singh — incidentally they too are from Haryana — and the Bhiwani Boxing Club. Geeta's victory at the 2010 Commonwealth Games was a similar watershed moment for women's wrestling in India.

Though India's Olympic campaign has been depressing so far, there are many lessons to be learnt from the women who have fought hard for a medal. From Dipa Karmakar, Indians can learn that courage, the ability to go for broke, defy death for the sake of honour, can help you surmount an effete, corrupt, inefficient system that failed to produce a single world-class gymnast before her. From Lalita Babar, born in an agrarian family in a remote village of Satara, Indians can learn that even when life becomes a perpetual battle against hunger, it is possible to break every existing Indian record, become an Asian champion and race with the best at the Olympics. And from PV Sindhu, India can learn that a childhood dream can become a reality if you are willing to get up at 3 am and then travel 60 km daily for several years in its pursuit.

Citius, altius, fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) says the Olympic motto. This year, Indian women at Rio are showing what these words mean.

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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2016 14:01:49 IST