MC Mary Kom’s success in the past one-and-a-half decades has something to do with the background she comes from. Born in a family of cultivators in Kangathei village near Imphal, she tilled the land and took care of her siblings, being the eldest in the family. She went on to become a five-time world champion, London Olympic Games bronze-medallist and has now been crowned Asian Games champion.
Tintu Luka hails from Kannur district in Kerala. Her father, a mason, left for Saudi Arabia to support the family when she was young. As a child she walked long distances through the hills to reach her school. Her talent was spotted by sprint queen PT Usha, who turned her into a champion; and at Incheon the 24-year-old earned India two medals —gold in the women’s 4x400m relay and silver in 800m.
Surely, Incheon saw Indian women in a new avatar.
The Games were also about women overcoming fear and apprehension to make their voices heard. While not taking anything away from the India men’s hockey team, which triumphed over Pakistan to secure a Rio Olympics berth, or a certain Jitu Rai, whose performance in the shooting arena put him in a different league, it were the women who grabbed the headlines.
It started with Shweta Chaudhry, an underrated but talented shooter, who won a pistol bronze and gave India their first medal at Incheon. The Games culminated for India with a bubbly bunch of women kabaddi players making it a one-sided contest against the sturdy Iran.
Discus thrower Seema Punia wanted to tell her detractors that no matter how hard they tried to run her down, she would come back triumphant. Twice denied the opportunity to compete at the Games, the towering Haryana girl’s ambition was to clinch gold at Incheon before time ran out. “Only my husband (Ankush) knows my suffering. I couldn’t compete at the 2006 Doha Asian Games because my father was ill and in 2010 I couldn’t qualify,” said Seema, whose career has been dogged by doping allegations ever since she was stripped of the World Junior Championships gold at Santiago, Chile in 2000.
Maligned by the system, which has made her look like a dope cheat every time she stepped into the cage in the last decade and a half, she gave a perfect rejoinder with her singular performance. “I never reacted to what they said...just kept training for the event under American throwing coach Tony Ciarelli in California.”
The story of Khushbir Kaur, winner of the 20km walk silver, is even more touching. Her father passed away when she was only seven and her mother had to do menial
jobs to sustain the family of five. Her mother’s determination to make her a sportsperson, even though Khushbir loved studies, was the driving force behind what she has achieved today — a first-ever silver for the country in 20km race walking. Even though she still doesn’t like the gruelling event, Khushbir says she’ll continue doing it “for my mother”.
Not just Khushbir, MR Poovamma, one of the members of the women’s 4x400m relay quartet, owes her success to her mother. “Her presence gives me inner strength. When my legs were aching and lungs gasping for breath, I thought of mother. It gave me the strength to drive ahead of the rest,” she had said after breaking the 52-second barrier in the blistering June heat at the inter-state meet in Lucknow.
That India won the 4x400m relay, which helped the country set an Asian Games record, was due to the efforts of Poovamma, who anchored the race and came up with the best time. The mother wasn’t there to witness history being made, but Poovamma was not afraid this time. She was ready to face the challenge without her mother accompanying her.
As in kabaddi, the women’s 4x400m relay is an event the country’s runners are expected to win every time they take to the track, such has been their dominance. But the citadel seemed to be falling following the doping scandal that broke out after the 2010 Guangzhou Games. Six top quarter-milers were suspended and the relay team was in s shambles.
But the fortitude shown by the quartet of Poovamma, Priyanka Pawar, Mandeep Kaur and Tintu Luka, hailing from diverse backgrounds and coming together to rebuild a team in tatters, will go down in Indian sporting history as one of the most resolute fights on the track ever.