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Jwala Gutta, once India’s top-ranked doubles badminton player, and a Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships medallist, will launch her new sports academy in Hyderabad this month. Gutta, among a handful of outspoken athletes, had repeated clashes with chief national coach P. Gopichand during her prime, when she claims she was sidelined despite her success. Her outspokenness has extended to commenting on current events; she tweeted about the violence against students in Delhi and the Hyderabad encounter killing, making her one of the few vocal sportspersons in India. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why did you decide to launch your own sports academy?

I always wanted to do something. Ten years back I thought I could, I had it in me to lead and I always like challenges. That’s how I took up doubles when they said it had no future. I made a mark.... Earlier, I was trying to get government land, but I think for a person like me it’s not happening. I didn’t want to wait any more. We had to sell one of our houses and invested everything in the academy.

Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa after winning round 16 of the women’s doubles match of the 2015 World Championships against Japan
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Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa after winning round 16 of the women’s doubles match of the 2015 World Championships against Japan (Photo: AFP)

Your academy is not just for badminton?

No, but we are starting with badminton. We have a 14 court facility, it’s quite fancy.

You say your academy will create “players with personality". What does that mean?

I think everyone is different. I want to nurture their individuality and bring that personality on court. The examples I can give are from tennis. Players like Sania (Mirza). She’s different, speaks well, has an understanding of what’s happening or like Serena Williams, be fearless, say it as it is. As sportspersons, we don’t play for Congress, or AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) or BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), we play for the country. Millions are following one athlete, (Virat) Kohli or (P.V.) Sindhu, Sania, me. It’s our moral responsibility to say things, have an opinion.

What are the costs of being outspoken?

That a player of my stature doesn’t have a Padma Shri. I haven’t received the government residential land I was promised or the promised land for my academy.

Do you regret it?

No. It’s just not in me to regret being me. I have performed, I was targeted again and again because of my outspokenness and (because I) did not join (Gopichand’s) academy and give that person the credit.

What do you think of your role off the court as a public figure?

To have an opinion, and condemn something which is not good, like rapes, violence against women, now violence against students.Why can’t I condemn it, even as a normal citizen? How does that make me political?

On such issues, many athletes have chosen not to voice their opinions publicly.

It’s their bad. I am sure one day will come when they will have to look at themselves in the mirror and I am sure they won’t like it. Just yesterday, my friends and I were having a healthy discussion. I said in this room, even though you may have more knowledge about politics, I don’t think anyone is as patriotic as me. From childhood I have played for India. I have represented India. I have always been a proud Indian.

What does nationalism or patriotism mean to you?

Right now, what I am seeing is patriotism is a matter of convenience. Okay, I am in the mood, I will be patriotic, stand up before a movie. You are patriotic when you condemn and fight for fellow citizens. That is patriotism for me. How the army is guarding the borders for us. That’s patriotism.

In the West, athletes tend to take positions more often...

And they are not called controversial. Their endorsements are not taken back. I haven’t endorsed anything till date. I never got any. Six-seven years ago, I heard from an ad agency, and it was shocking, “because Jwala is controversial". I can’t keep quiet. I have to be the good girl; that’s what they told me. Fighting for my right is a controversy?

Do you get trolled a lot?

All the time. My mom is Chinese so I get racist comments. Not death threats. The most shocking thing is I don’t think I say anything political. I am just sad to see the current situation. Why can’t I be, I live in the same country? What is happening today, you know, it’s not good. When I played badminton, I was performing, I was not political that time. I played, performed, won. I still was targeted, removed from the team. As an Olympian, I had to go to the Delhi high court (after the Badminton Association of India recommended a life ban against her). So how can a sportsperson like me be focused completely on the game? I was world No.6, with a little more support I could have been world No.1.

You have said you have spoken against all governments. What is different now?

Social media was not as big 10 years ago. And then you have these fake accounts and the power of anonymity. I think a lot of people who are frustrated in their own life come on social media, so they can abuse.

Have your well-wishers told you to back off a little, not react to every news item?

I have toned it down in the past few months. Now I have the responsibility for children in my academy. I have to think about them before I think about myself. But I told everybody, I can’t keep quiet, it’s just not me. I am emotional about certain things.

Like?

I was so surprised that none of the women sportspersons spoke up—I think only Sania did—when the Kathua rape happened. The government over there was supporting the accused. It doesn’t matter which religion, she is human, we are humans first. I am an atheist and called myself atheist 10 years ago and got weird looks.

You spoke against the Hyderabad police encounter, though some public figures hailed it.

You saw the pressure on the police. I don’t agree with what happened, but the scary part was people celebrating death. It’s not a joyous occasion. We have forgotten these four are poor, what about their families? They were victims too. Where is the empathy? That surprised me. As a society, are we that bloodthirsty now? Why have we come to this, is my question. How is this justice?

What’s next, career-wise?

I have not announced retirement but I don’t see any other player who can play alongside me. I should get fit, I have an academy running. I want to get as fit as I was during the Olympics.

What do you think of India’s chances at the 2020 Olympics?

P.V. Sindhu is the only one we can depend on, seeing the results. Doubles, I don’t know if the women will qualify.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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