Why Indian women are taking to arm wrestling as a sport

  • Joanna Lobo, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 14, 2015 14:35 IST

* Anita Batra, 55, a senior clerk at Spices Board of India in Delhi, took up arm-wrestling six months ago, because it was a way back into the sports she had so enjoyed in school.

* Hemlata 'Dolly' Shekawat, 28, a public relations officer from Madhya Pradesh, joined because her husband recommended it. She finds it liberating and now works to inspire other women to sign up.

K Lalhriatpuii, 24, a BA student from Mizoram, has been arm-wrestling for four years because it will give her a better chance at joining the police force.

This weekend, these women join a total of 130 registered to compete at the 39th National Arm Wrestling Championship in Uttarakhand.

As they mingle at a wedding hall in Bazpur, 58 km from Nainital, this group is the largest in the history of women's arm-wrestling in India, with contestants ranging in age from 15 to 55.

Many, like sisters Vandhana, 17, and Varsha Shaji, 19, have been here before, as they pursue a common dream of representing India at the world championships.


"My daughters have taken up the sport inspired by their father, a former state-level arm-wrestling champion," says homemaker Ancy, who has accompanied the sisters on all three Nationals outings.

This parental support has been one of the key factors driving the growing popularity of the sport among women. The number of contestants at the Nationals, for instance, has risen by more than 50% over the past seven years and 30% over the past year alone, according to data from the Indian Arm Wrestling Federation (IAF), which is affiliated to the World Arm Wrestling Federation.

While there were no professional women arm-wrestlers in India until the late 1990s, that number inched up to 80 by 2008, with more than half of them from Manipur and Mizoram.

Last year saw 100 girls compete. This year, Kerala alone has 22 contestants, Haryana has 15, Delhi 8, Chhattisgarh 5, and Maharashtra 3.

"Women pick this sport because it is one of the easiest and most fun ways to keep fit," says Laxman Singh Bhandari, general secretary of the 14-year-old Armwrestling Association of New Delhi. "It isn't like other sports."

The tournaments don't have too many people, so the women have a better chance of winning. And there is no politics, no quotas, and an easy selection process. Most importantly, it requires barely any investment."

The women contestants agree.


Team Kerala strikes a pose in Uttarakhand.

Since the sport can be practised solo, between chores or at home after work, it feeds, with minimal disruption, the desire to achieve, set oneself apart, or do something different.

Batra, for instance, practises at home every day, sometimes with her sister.

"I really liked how easy it is to learn, and that you don't need any special skills, body or equipment, just a passion to prove yourself," she says.

A change in the competition structure in 2008 has helped promote the sport among women too. Earlier, at the Nationals, for both men and women, only senior or adult weight categories were considered for the team championships. Now, every medal win contributes points to the state team's kitty and helps determine the winning state.

"This has encouraged young girls to compete, and states have also increased their efforts to organise school and college tournament to recruit players," says Nayar.

Five years ago, for instance, there were no women arm-wrestlers registered in Delhi.

"Over the past two years, we have reached out to girls and women through schools and colleges, gyms and sports clubs, and the numbers have risen," says Laxman Singh Bhandari, general secretary of the 15-year-old Armwrestling Association of New Delhi.

Manoj Nayar, general secretary of the IAF, believes it helps that this is a sport in which women are treated on par with men in terms of training, prize money and sponsorship. "If a state association manages to get sponsors, for instance, the money is distributed equally between male and female winners, so that they can compete at the next level," he says.

Back in the Uttarakhand arena, Batra is excited about participating in her first Nationals. She was introduced to the sport by colleagues from the Kerala branch of the Spices Board and found their enthusiasm for the sport contagious. She has won a silver medal at the state level.

Winning a medal at the nationals would put her on track to represent India at the world championships in Malaysia this September.

For the sport itself, the next step would be state recognition. "If the sports ministry recognised arm-wrestling, we would likely get more sponsorships, which would allow our national-level winners to compete on the international stage," says Shrikant Varankar, general secretary of the Maharashtra Arm Wrestling Association.


*Anyone can arm-wrestle, but it helps to have or develop good upper-body strength and stamina.

* Coaches advise a diet packed with protein, to build muscle strength.

* Players need to practise certain exercises and strength-training about twice a week, in sessions of two to four hours each, and should exercise every day.


* The Indian Arm Wrestling Federation was launched in 1977 to promote the sport among men and women. The first two decades saw no women register, so the women's category at the Nationals was scrapped.

* In the late 1990s, women began to register at the state-levels, most of them in the north-east.

* By 2008, this number had risen to 70, as registered states reached out to women through school- and college-level competitions and local championships, and as parents became more supportive.

* Today, 130 women are competing at the Nationals, with senior players - those who have been playing for over four years - doubling as coaches, referees and mentors.

* A state association generally spends about Rs 5,000 to send a player to the Nationals. This includes travel, accommodation and uniforms.

* Most dreams end at the Nationals, however. Since the sport is still not recognised by the central government, sponsorships to compete at the international level are hard to come by and most contestants and associations cannot fund their own way.

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