Saina Nehwal’s rise to the top of the world badminton rankings is yet another landmark in the history of women in Indian sports and comes on the 40th anniversary of their first significant international achievement.
It was at the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok that Kanwaljit Sandhu won the first international gold medal for an Indian sportswoman in the 400 metres. This was followed by the PT Usha era of the 1980s while this decade saw the emergence of Sania Mirza and world amateur boxing champion MC Mary Kom.
It was an uphill struggle for sportswomen from the time of Independence till the 60s, with just a handful of sports like tennis, badminton, table tennis, athletics and hockey open to them.
The tiny Parsi and Anglo-Indian communities led the way in those early years and it was in the matter of clothing that sportswomen in India saw their progress stifled. A girl seen in public in shorts or skirts was considered scandalous and it was a common sight to see them competing in salwar-kameez and even saris.
Among the early stars were Roshan Mistry (a Parsi), 100m silver medalist in the first Asian Games in Delhi in 1951; and Stephie D’Souza, the first woman to receive the Arjuna Award in 1963. D’Souza was part of the relay team that won gold in the 4x100m at the 1954 Asian Games and also represented India in hockey. Geeta Zutshi also struck gold in the 800m in the 1978 Asian Games. But by now the Kerala era in women’s athletics was beginning to unfold. This was thanks to the sports hostel concept in the state, under which the government funded the education and training of promising young athletes.
When the Asian Games returned to New Delhi in 1982, M.D. Valsamma was one of the stars with her gold in the 400m hurdles. The Indian women’s hockey team also made up for the ignominy suffered by the men who were trounced 7-1 in the final by Pakistan. Angel Mary Joseph, Valsamma, Usha and Shiny Abraham were at the forefront of the Kerala surge while Karnataka produced the first glamour girls of Indian sport in Ashwini Nachappa, Reeth Abraham and Vandana Rao. This trio could not match the medal-winning feats of their Kerala counterparts but captured the media glare with their good looks and daring outfits.
Usha won silver in the 100m and 200m in 1982. For the rest of the decade there was no one to challenge her supremacy in Asia. But Usha’s greatest, and saddest, moment came at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when she became the first Indian woman to reach an Olympics track and field final in the 400m hurdles, but was edged into fourth place.
Since then only Anju Bobby George has matched Usha’s feat when she reached the final of the women’s long jump in the 2004 Olympics, having won silver in the world championship at Paris the previous year. That remains the lone medal won by an Indian athlete — male or female — at the world event.
By 1986 Usha was unstoppable. The Seoul Asian Games were an all-time low for Indian sport as they brought India just five gold medals. Four were Usha’s, and the fifth was won in kabaddi.
The rapid strides taken by women on the sports field saw them shift their focus, from the 1990s onwards, to the traditionally masculine preserves of weightlifting, boxing and wrestling. Karnam Malleswari and Kunjarani Devi bagged international weightlifting medals galore and when Malleswari won the bronze in the 69kg division at the Sydney Olympics, she set yet another landmark — the first Olympic medal for an Indian woman.
Sania Mirza burst onto the scene spectacularly in 2005 by rising in the world tennis rankings while at the same time turning heads and raising eyebrows. She broke down barriers of gender and religion and had the world media turning its attention to India. Her glam appeal meant that endorsement deals for the Hyderabadi heartthrob were now rivaling those of India’s top cricketers.
But the shift from the sports pages to front page news, and then to the glamour of Page 3 — combined with injuries and various controversies — saw Mirza lose focus, rankings and popularity. Today she has been reduced to an also-ran on the world tennis circuit. Her comet-like career has sent warning signs to Saina who, no doubt, has learnt some important life lessons from her fellow-Hyderabadi’s sudden rise and equally rapid fall.
In sports as varied as archery, shooting, chess — Koneru Humpy is ranked world number two — to boxing, where M.C. Mary Kom is the four-time amateur world champion in the 46 kg category, women have made impressive strides since Kanwaljit Sandhu’s breakthrough feat four decades ago.
Today, thanks to the courageous pioneers who defied the oppressive constraints of a patriarchal society, the sky is the limit for women’s sports in India. The forthcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and the 2012 Olympics in London should see this movement reach its pinnacle and bring more glory to Indian sports.
(Gulu Ezekiel is a Delhi-based sports writer The views expressed by the author are personal)