When Krishna Poonia, Harwant Kaur and Seema Antil stood together on the podium after the women’s discus event at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi on Monday, the capacity crowd exploded in applause. They were witnessing the first ever 1-2-3 finish in any kind of athletics event by India at an international competition. It was also India’s first track and field gold medal at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 52 years.
“This has to be the biggest achievement in our life,” says Harwant Kaur, who won the silver medal.
One of the factors behind India’s unprecedented success and largest ever medal haul at the CWG is the rise of its women athletes. The women came back with 32 medals from the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and 15 from the 2006 Games in Melbourne—this time they have 34 from a total of 91, and still counting. Even if the numbers can be attributed to home advantage, the women have won over 35% of the total medals, more than the last two editions of the Games.
The 4x400m women’s team got India its second track and field gold. Rahi Sarnobat and Anisa Sayyed started off the gold rush on the first day of the CWG by winning the 25m pistol (pairs) event. Sayyed then went on to win the 25m pistol singles as well. Deepika Kumari, just 17 years old, won gold in the individual women’s recurve archery, and the women’s recurve team won their event as well.
Saina Nehwal will play in the badminton singles final on Thursday, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa will be in action in the badminton doubles final on the same day, guaranteeing two more medals.
“For women, things are always more difficult in India because of conservative attitudes,” says Nehwal. “That’s why even our Asian neighbours such as China, Korea and Japan have so many more women athletes participating in various games.” Nehwal is ranked No. 3 in the world; four Chinese players are in the top 10.
(Clockwise from top left) The women’s 4x400m relay team (from left, Chidananda Ashwini, Mandeep Kaur, Manjeet Kaur and Sini Jose) after their historic gold medal win. (AP) Saina Nehwal has not dropped a set on her way to the badminton singles final (Photo AP). Heena Sidhu (right) and Anu Raj Singh after winning gold in the 10m air pistol (pairs) event. Seema Antil, Harwant Kaur and Krishna Poonia celebrate their 1-2-3 win in women’s discus. PTI
“If you look at our athletes, they mostly come from villages. For a woman from a village to follow a career in sports is an incredible leap,” adds Harwant Kaur, whose grandfather, Sardar Dalip Singh, faced daily harrasment from neighbours and other villagers in Sabhra, a village bordering Pakistan, 65km from Amritsar, for training his granddaughters in sports.
“Family support is crucial for women,” says Harwant Kaur. “Otherwise, it’s all about settling down. There’s a constant refrain in our villages to get us married. There’s hardly any respect for what we do. Krishna (Poonia, who won gold in discus) is really lucky that she got amazing family support. Her husband is her coach, her in-laws completely support her, and look after her child. We need more people like them.”
Poonia’s husband and coach Virender Poonia agrees: “Let people say whatever they have to. Make your daughter, wife or sister or any woman participate in sports as much as you can. Promote women in sports and support them if you don’t want such medal droughts again,” he says.
Women have also stormed tradition male bastions such as wrestling, where Geeta won India’s first medal in the women’s event—a gold (55kg freestyle)—followed by her sisters Babita and Anita, who won silver (51kg freestyle) and gold (67kg freestyle), respectively. Alka Tomar followed up with yet another gold (59kg freestyle), with Suman Kundu (bronze, 63kg freestyle) and Nirmala Devi (silver, 48kg freestyle) rounding off an incredible tally.
“My father Mahabir Singh is a former wrestler who made sure that all of us got into wrestling,” says Geeta, whose four sisters are also elite wrestlers. “People in our village thought he was mad. Women in Haryana villages don’t even show their faces to men outside their household. Imagine what it’s like for them to get into wrestling!”
Geetika Rustagi contributed to this story