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Seeking a level playing field

Basketball player Raspreet Sidhu on the lack of professional options for women athletes

Raspreet Sidhu. Courtesy Fiba
Raspreet Sidhu. Courtesy Fiba

For as long as she can remember, Raspreet Sidhu has had eyes only for the India jersey. After more than 13 years with the Indian national women’s basketball team, it would be fair to say the blue jersey well and truly belongs to her. Sidhu, 28, who plays as a shooting guard, was part of the team that competed at the 1st Fiba (International Basketball Federation) Asia Cup, held in Bengaluru in July. India won the division B championship, qualifying for division A of the Fiba Asia Cup for the first time.

Sidhu, who was in New Delhi recently to take part in a panel discussion on “The Role Of Sports In The Empowerment Of Girls", organized by the Union ministry of women and child development and Unicef, says she envisions a world where every girl child has “wings" to believe in themselves and chase their dreams.

In an interview with Lounge, Sidhu talks about the importance of sports in women’s empowerment and the lack of professional options for women athletes in India. Edited excerpts:

How important is the role of sports in the empowerment of girls?

I think sports is an important life skill for every child because it teaches you so much. It teaches you to respect each other, to face adversities in life and to lose gracefully. And sports is definitely more important for girls because it gives you the confidence to face the male-dominated world, where you have an equal say. As a girl, I can say from my experiences and my friends’, if you taste success at an early age, it makes you believe that you can be successful in whatever you do irrespective of the gender bias. That is very important.

How challenging was it for you to break into a field that is traditionally male-dominated?

My family is my pillar of strength. They always supported me in whatever I wanted to do. That made a lot of difference because there were many challenges when I decided to take up sports as a career. There was so much criticism. People used to ask me, “Why don’t you look for something else: a career in engineering, medicine and so on?"

But I knew my parents were supportive and that is the kind of support every girl needs to be able to excel.

What has your journey with the basketball team been like? How important was the qualification to division A of the Fiba Asia Cup?

I have been playing for the Indian team since 2004. I was part of the team that won the Fiba Asia championship recently. I think (the qualification) is very important now that we will be competing with the leaders of Asia and Oceania, and then later we can claim our spot in the world championships. When it comes to basketball, it is a very different setting. There are continents playing together, and only the winning teams go ahead.

What is the difference in sporting infrastructure in India and other countries?

The federation and the Sports Authority of India are doing their bit but I think we are more than a little far behind the countries we compete against. And it’s not just about the infrastructure. Something as basic as the need for a psychologist when you succumb to pressure—this is a very basic need for sportspersons. Like I said, the federations are doing their bit, but they need more support to bridge that gap.

What resources did you have access to as a player in the initial years? What are the areas which need improvement?

It differs from individual to individual. I would just like to say that there’s a lack of professions when it comes to female sportspersons. Men have so many teams. They have oil agencies to work for, railways and various sorts of banks. But when it comes to the girls, there is just the railways.

I never saw myself working there. So what’s next? Leave the sport, concentrate on your studies and get a job. That is one area we really need to work on: proper professions in India for our female athletes. We’ve had a better track record (performance-wise) recently compared with the men’s team... women should get equal opportunities.

Do you think that if you were playing any other sport, things would have been different?

I don’t imagine myself as anyone else but a basketball player, playing for the country. I am sure it would have been different in other sports, but that is my fight. Not everyone can hope and dream that they should have been a cricketer. I am just doing a very small part in ensuring that my sport gets more visibility. Basketball has given me so much, and I hope the youngsters out there can see this.

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