Manika Batra. Photo: Reuters
Manika Batra. Photo: Reuters

The girls of the Games

Women athletes won 42% of India's total tally of medals at the Commonwealth Games that ended on Sunday, compared with 35% at the 2010 Games in Delhi

Women won 28 of India’s 66 medals at the recently-concluded 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, and 12 of the 26 golds. At the Glasgow 2014 and Delhi 2010 Games, in comparison, female athletes won six out of 15 gold medals (out of the total 64), and 13 out of 38 gold medals (out of a total 101), respectively.

In percentage terms, women have won 46% of the gold medals this year, up from 34% in 2010. There also is a 7 percentage-point rise—from 35% in 2010 to 42% in 2018—in the total number of medals won by women. And unlike 2010, there was no home advantage for the Indian athletes.

The Delhi Games were perhaps the first tournament that saw Indian women athletes becoming household names: from Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa in badminton, to Heena Sidhu in shooting, Krishna Poonia in athletics, and Deepika Kumari in archery. In subsequent multidisciplinary events and global competitions, they started being considered strong medal prospects. Young athletes at the 2018 Games, such as table tennis player Manika Batra, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, and shooter Manu Bhaker, will hope to follow in their footsteps.

So it was perhaps quite fitting that India’s first gold in Gold Coast came from Chanu and the last one from Nehwal, who, as it happened, was on the verge of pulling out of the Games just a couple of days before she boarded the flight to Australia.

After she won gold at the World Championships in November, Chanu was a definite medal contender, but the soft-spoken Manipuri did not let pressure hamper her performance. The 23-year-old came up with six flawless lifts in Gold Coast, breaking records with each one of them in the 48kg weight category, lifting more than double her body weight every time. It was a redemption of sorts for Chanu after the disastrous show at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where only one of her six lifts was clean. Her performances since forced Sanjita Chanu, the gold medallist in 48kg at Glasgow 2014, to compete in the 53kg category, in which she won a gold in Gold Coast.

The success of the weightlifters has also brought about a change in attitude in families, and society. “My father never cared about societal pressure. But good performances have ensured that fewer people are talking against girls doing power sports or sports in general," says lifter Punam Yadav, who won gold in the 69kg category. “I have a younger sister, and he’s supportive of her becoming a weightlifter too."

In more ways than one, it reflects the change in women’s wrestling since the Phogat sisters from Balali, Haryana, came into the limelight. This year, all six women wrestlers in the Indian contingent won medals, including one gold.

Batra, the table tennis player, was probably the find of this year’s Games, with four medals (two golds, one silver, one bronze) in a space of seven days. In just one week, the 22-year-old became India’s most successful table tennis player, leading the women’s team to a historic gold, and then bagging the women’s singles gold, also for the first time. Twice in the competition, she stunned Singapore’s Feng Tianwei, the world No.4 and multiple-time Olympic medallist. “If we keep winning big like this, I think table tennis can become the next badminton," says Batra.

Sprinter Hima Das, 18, may not have returned home with a medal, but she did leave a mark, finishing sixth in the women’s 400m final, clocking a personal best of 51.32 seconds. Das, who wanted to become a footballer, moved to athletics at the insistence of schoolteachers, and started training for the 400m just a few months back. Her talent stood out in the Federation Cup, about two months ago, when she defeated the experienced M.R. Poovamma to win gold and booked a ticket to Gold Coast.

For her mother, who had not heard of the Commonwealth Games till then, it was enough that she would watch her daughter on TV. And watch they did, with their entire village in Assam, on a giant screen outside their home.

Mary Kom. Photo: PTI
Mary Kom. Photo: PTI

As the youngsters stepped up, shooter Tejaswini Sawant, 37, found herself under pressure. Manu Bhaker and Mehuli Ghosh, both teenagers, had beaten Olympians in their disciplines a week earlier. Sawant, competing in her fourth CWG, won silver and gold in the 50m Rifle Prone and 3P event, respectively, the latter coming with a Games record. “I missed out in 2014, and took time to get back," she says. “I also got married and had to get adjusted to a new life. At that time, the youngsters had started performing well." But support from family and coach helped Sawant plan and prepare.

Then there are sportspersons like boxer M.C. Mary Kom, who is habituated to winning, badminton players Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu, who competed for the gold medal in women’s singles, and Vinesh Phogat, who seems to have overcome her Rio Olympics nightmare.

The Commonwealth Games might not be the best yardstick by which to judge India’s sporting prowess globally, but it is the first step. The few women who dared to walk the unknown road a few years ago have managed to inspire an entire generation.

India’s performance in Gold Coast, then, provides an opportunity to identify and groom the champions of tomorrow.

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