The paradigm has shifted. You can hear it in Lovlina Borgohain’s war cry, in the clink of PV Sindhu’s second medal, in the thumping, huddled up celebration of the hockey team. Indian women have come to the Tokyo Olympics to play.
For the second straight Games, women athletes are winning medals for India. Boxer Borgohain and Sindhu sealed medals for India this week, adding to the silver Mirabai Chanu had won on day one of the Tokyo Olympics. Seven of India’s last 11 medals—including Saina Nehwal and MC Mary Kom at London 2012 and PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik at Rio 2016—at the Olympics have been won by women. The growth is staggering when you consider that Karnam Malleswari’s bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the first ever by an Indian woman.
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“I had won the world championships twice already when I competed in Sydney,” Malleswari told Mint in a phone interview. “And even then there were people who said I should be happy that I had qualified for the Olympics and should not expect a medal. Being an Indian female athlete I should just be happy that I’m getting to go to the Olympics; that was the thought process.” Malleswari lifted 240 kg in Sydney to win bronze, and more importantly, shattered the glass ceiling for Indian women.
On 1 August, Sindhu raised the bar further as she became the first Indian woman to win Olympic medals in two different editions. Unlike Rio, when she had surprisingly stormed to the final and ended up with a silver medal, Sindhu went into Tokyo Games as India’s biggest medal hope. The 26-year-old handled that pressure just as deftly as she would a delicate drop from her opponent.
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She suffered a heart-breaking loss against Tai Tzu-Ying in the semifinal. But almost within 24 hours, Sindhu was back on court, battling it out for bronze. Sindhu artfully dismantled the left-handed He Bingjiao of China 21-13, 21-15 to take the final spot on the podium. It made her only the second Indian athlete, after Sushil Kumar, to win multiple medals in an individual sport.
“I was really sad about the semis. I was in tears,” Sindhu said in an interaction with the Indian media a day later. “I think everyone was in tears but my coach, my physio helped me and said it's not over yet. You have a chance, you have another chance… I just thought that I have to give my best.” Bronze wasn’t the medal that she had come to Tokyo for, but it was one she earned and gracefully accepted. While the statuesque shuttler has made winning a habit over the past five years, there were some unheralded heroes that have also emerged in Tokyo.
Fouaad Mirza made the fancy world of equestrian sport a little more accessible to the ordinary Indian sports fan as he reached the final of individual eventing, and finished 23rd after the jumping round. Young Indian sailor Vishnu Saravanan may have finished his maiden Olympics ranked 20 in a field of 35, but there was a moment of brilliant promise. Pitted against the best in the world, the 22-year-old was third in Race 9 in the men’s laser event.
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India’s wait for an Olympic medal from track and field continues, but Kamalpreet Kaur raised a glimmer of hope as she was placed second after the qualifying round of the women’s discus throw. The 25-year-old was one of only two participants to breach the automatic qualification mark of 64m on Saturday, 31 July. In the final, she finished sixth with a throw of 63.70m.
But the woman who has given India’s campaign at the Tokyo Olympics a much-needed shot in the arm was Borgohain. After Chanu’s triumph on the opening day, India grappled with one disappointment after another. It seemed to culminate with MC Mary Kom, the icon, exiting the Olympic stage after nine minutes of brilliant, breathtaking boxing on 29 July.
A day later, the baton had been passed to Borgohain. The lanky boxer from Assam defeated former world champion Chen Nien-Chin 4-1 in the women's welterweight quarterfinal. When Boroghain was declared winner of the bout, she punched the air and screamed in celebration. Borogohain had assured herself, and India, of a medal as both losing semifinalists in boxing are given bronze medals.
“The opportunities for female athletes are now equal,” says legendary athlete Anju Bobby George, who reached the long-jump final at the Athens Olympics in 2004. “But I think at the highest level, women are showing a greater fighting spirit. They are not giving up, battling till the end.”
Borgohain, whose father owns a small farm and had to work at tea gardens to make ends meet, became only the third Indian boxer, after Vijender Singh (bronze, 2008) and Mary Kom (bronze, 2012) to win an Olympic medal. She will take on 2019 world champion Turkey’s Busenaz Surmeneli in the semi-final on 4 August. “There is only one medal that is gold,” Borgohain declared after the win, summarising the change in attitude since Malleswari’s pioneering medal run. None of the TV channels had telecast Malleswari’s bronze-winning performance in 2000, but Borgohain’s triumph was telecast to millions, written about, tweeted and retweeted a few thousand times within seconds.
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“I think visibility is the biggest thing,” says two-time Olympian Aparna Popat, while talking about how the success of female athletes has multiplied over the years in India. “Young girls watch these superstars. If you don't see them, hear about them, talk about them, you don't have that kind of impact. Because these athletes are so visible, it becomes important to break those barriers. ‘Girls shouldn't play sport, or if you play in the sun you will become dark, you can't be muscular, you can't be running around, your clothing is a problem, or what is the point of pursuing sport, it’s not going to lead to anything.’ A lot of these very basic social barriers we talk about disappear. They go organically, which is what you want.”
The achievement of Indian women on the sports field is greater because all of them have had to beat social or financial odds at some point. This spirit is perfectly captured by India’s hockey queens, led by the aptly named Rani Rampal. Nearly every member of the squad have inspiring stories. Rampal comes from a family of five that lived within four unplastered walls and barely had enough food. Her teammates Nikki Pradhan and Salima Tete come from the impoverished tribal belt in Jharkhand. Midfielder Neha Goyal comes from a troubled household: her father was a violent alcoholic, while her mother toiled at daily-wage jobs to keep her daughters from starving.
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The list is long and exhausting. But it has forged a sisterhood that has seen them take the Olympic stage by storm. Indian women’s hockey team, competing in successive Games for the very first time, knocked out heavyweights Australia 1-0 to reach a historic semi-final. The letdown in Rio, when the Indian team drew one and lost four of their five matches, forced a reckoning. For possibly the first time, the Indian women’s team was given resources on par with the men’s hockey team and the impact has been immediate. They have returned to the Olympics fitter, wiser and hungrier. In only their third appearance at the Games, they are one match away from a medal.
Hockey has brought India the most number of Olympic medals till date—11, including eight golds. After years of disappointment and false dawns, Tokyo seemed to have sparked a genuine revival. While the men’s team will fight for a bronze for the first time since winning gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the women’s team will take on Argentina in the semi-finals on 4 August. What is clear is that as India seeks to jump-start a golden era of sporting glory, women are leading the way.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.