Sports is a remarkable barometer of the physical differences between men and women. Mumbai-based science writer Padma Prakash had once observed in a monograph that "nowhere is this myth of (women's) biological inferiority so readily and forcefully demonstrable as in the sports arena."
So what are these physical differences? The male body, bigger and heavier, is about 30 per cent stronger. Men have a greater concentration of testosterone that helps to create more red blood cells, which, in turn, has implications for the intake and delivery of oxygen that is linked to sporting performance. On the plus side, women tend to be more sensitive to sound and have better night vision. The difference in the reproductive roles means women attain puberty earlier, have a greater body fat percentage and give birth — a function that impacts their sporting abilities.
Women who excel in sports have to work immeasurably harder than men, especially in India where gender discrimination is hardwired into social reality. Indian sportswomen have to contend with at least four hurdles: social attitudes, administrative inertia and poor resource provisioning, sexual harassment and family expectations. At the dawn of Independence, leaders like Rajkumari Amrit Kaur had realised the importance of women's participation in sport for nation-building. In 1995, India committed itself to the Beijing Platform that urges governments to enable girls to participate in sport on the same basis as boys.
Yet, India continues to treat its sportswomen shabbily. Every woman athlete in the country would understand the humiliation of P.T. Usha, one of India's greatest athletes, who broke down before TV cameras during the National Open Athletics Championship in Bhopal in 2009, after being denied accommodation in keeping with her status — she was asked to share a room with five other women. Women cricketers and hockey players in India constantly point out that while their performances have equalled or bettered those of the men, their treatment, in terms of facilities and monetary compensation, is distinctly second class.
Such treatment reflects social biases that can turn toxic, especially when women sportspersons are regarded as sexual prey. Whether it's a Ruchika Girhotra two decades ago or women hockey players in the present team, many women have been subjected to criminal and sexually overt behaviour from those in a position of authority. As the additional district and sessions judge noted in the Ruchika molestation case, "She used to play lawn tennis in the courts of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association (HLTA)… the convict was a senior police officer and HLTA president… he failed in both duties by molesting a minor girl."
Family commitments can often be a showstopper, given the centrality that marriage and childbearing is accorded in a woman's life. Manipur's Mary Kom has revealed how her father objected to her taking up boxing because he felt it'd ruin her marriage prospects. Wrestler sisters Geeta and Babita Kumari from rural Haryana had to contend with sharp verbal attacks from local villagers and the larger family, who maintained that nobody would marry a wife with muscles. But Kom and the Haryana sisters were able to negotiate their way to sporting glory.
Change will come, not because of a more enlightened sports administration but because of the sportswomen themselves. India has had many women who have defied the odds. Women like Kamaljit Sandhu (gold medallist at the 1970 Bangkok Asiad), Karnam Malleswari (the only Indian woman Olympic medallist) or shuttler Saina Nehwal are cases in point.
These women have challenged stereotypes, redefined parameters and brought sporting glory to themselves and the country. It's also about freedom and testing the limits of endurance. As Jude Howell, director of the Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics, and a London Marathon participant once told me, "There are many reasons why I like running. I love the sense of space when one goes running. You feel refreshed and have a whole new burst of energy. Besides, there's that sense of freedom."
Pamela Philipose is Director, Women's Feature Service. The views expressed by the author are personal.