India’s sports awards have a palpable gender bias

Gender bias in promoting sporting talent might be holding back India’s performance on the big stage


(From left to right) Athletes Sakshi Malik, Jitu Rai, Dipa Karmakar and P.V. Sindhu at the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award ceremony in New Delhi on 29 August. Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT
(From left to right) Athletes Sakshi Malik, Jitu Rai, Dipa Karmakar and P.V. Sindhu at the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award ceremony in New Delhi on 29 August. Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT

P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar were conferred with the country’s highest sports award—Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna—after their performances in the Rio Olympics. Of the four sportspersons who got the award this year, three are women, and for valid reasons. While the success of these women might have been too obvious to ignore, an analysis of sports awards in India shows that women have lagged behind men by a large margin when it comes to getting government conferred sports awards.

Apart from the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, Mint has looked at Arjuna Award, Dhaynchand Award and Dronacharya Award to address this question.

Just over one-fourth of Arjuna awards have gone to women. Dronacharya awards, which are meant to recognize quality coaches, are even more biased. Less than one in 25 of them have gone to a woman. There is more gender parity when it comes to Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Awards, but that is probably because the honour comes after succeeding at the global level, and it is more a recognition of success rather than talent.

To be sure, there seems to have been some improvement in the gender bias in sports awards over the past couple of decades. Clearly, it is not enough.

India’s sports bureaucracy rather than a talent gap between male and female players is to blame for this imbalance according to experts.

The number of awards from the government for each year is limited. While those performing exceptionally get considered, there are many deserving athletes, even males, who have not received these awards. We need to consider socio-economic-political influences and biases from the environment that creep into the process, said Hakimuddin Habibullah, who was part of the Indian swimming contingent in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is founder of Winning Matters Consulting Pvt. Ltd.

The recommendation for these awards often comes from sports federations. But majority of the federations are male dominated. The representation of the board is often skewed, said an expert who declined to be identified.

The fact that gymnast Dipa Karmakar was not allowed to take her personal physio to Rio, before she stunned the world by qualifying for the finals, speaks volumes about how women athletes are treated by the sports bureaucracy.

Another factor that contributes to women getting fewer sports awards is their low participation in certain sports. While the share of women in awards for sports such as athletics is close to 40%, it drops to less than 10% for sports such as boxing and wrestling, which were till recently considered taboo for women.

Athletics, hockey, wrestling, cricket and boxing are top five sports by share in various sports awards given by the government. Barring athletics, women fare badly in getting awards in these sports, which could also be a reflection of women finding it difficult to take up some of these sports. With India’s women wrestlers tasting success in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and now in the Rio Olympics, things could change for the better.

Media and markets could also play a role in shaping or breaking gender bias in recognition of sports personalities. Often the pressure to dole out awards in particular sports arises from media influence that cultivates public following. For instance, Badminton is no longer considered a male-dominated sport after consistent victories of women players such as Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu. Media focus has further fuelled that. With women winning medals, their commercial brand value has matched or exceeded their male counterparts.

It was probably this public support, which led to Nehwal’s publicly expressing disappointment when the sports ministry recommended Sushil Kumar for the Padma Bhushan Award and not her in 2015.

Sportsperson-turned-politician and former Lok Sabha MP Jyotirmoyee Sikdar, who won two golds and one silver medal in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games has similar issues. If a woman player does well, her husband becomes a coach and is conferred a Dronacharya award, Sikdar said.

With the gradual change in performances and attitudes, it is possible that these women may even go ahead and become national-level coaches, said Neerav Tomar, managing director and chief executive of IOS Sports and Entertainment. Even women players admit that there is a dearth of quality women coaches at the higher level, a fact reflected in the abysmal share of women in Dronacharya Awards.

India’s sports bureaucracy would do well to correct its biases in promoting gender equality in sports. Manisha Malhotra, a former national tennis champion and silver medallist in mixed doubles at 2002 Busan Asian games, believes men have historically overshadowed women in sports in terms of achievement but this is more due to the bias against women and lack of encouragement to take up sports. Women are likely to get more medals in the international arena than men if encouraged. The gap between the best women athletes at the national-level and the best in the world is far narrower than in the case of male athletes, Malhotra added.

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