Beneath the glitter – Looking at The Asian Games

Does it amaze you when you hear the stories of poverty and success in same sentence? Does it amaze us when we hear the stories of some of the best sports-persons and the hardship they have dealt with before and throughout their careers? Does it amaze us when we hear about the sorry state of affairs of sports facilities and some athletes still coming up with great performances? Does it amaze that most of these athletes come from rural India and mostly where they have much economic and social constraints, where work and employment is still precarious? Does it alarm when one get to know that some of these phenomenal sports-persons come from the areas which are still dealing with the issues of hunger, high rate of unemployment, major gender gap? Areas where women coming out and trying to make cut into sports are still taboo? How often does one hear about women from marginal sections (Dalit/Backward caste/tribal) becoming a sportsperson?

Hima Das

Some stories of these kinds make usual snippets in many Hindi newspapers around big sports events. Though, these stories, which are posed as individual heroic one and less of a critical approach to see the working of sports administration, are meant to be sensational and don’t do justice to the entire sports affairs in India.

The Asian Games 2018 at Jakarta, Indonesia has ended now. It has been a good run, to be expected from 541 (277 men and 247 women) Indian athletes who participated, with some expected wins and some unexpected losses.

In midst of all this, there are some inspiring and promising stories which needed special mention in order to reflect on sports affairs in India. Some athletes who went ahead against all odds not only represented India but also won the medals. Personally, I was thrilled to see three athletes making a cut into ‘elite’ club of medal winner. Dutee Chand and Hima Das in Track and Field and Divya Kakran in Wrestling are to be mentioned. These three impressive performances came in Asian Games representing a country where dowry and ‘honour’ killings are still living reality.
Institutions like Khap Panchayats still dictate the terms for women and their movements with wider social sanction from society and religion. On top of that the sports administration is not gender neutral! Women sports-persons are not taken seriously or not provided with the support system they needed! Though there are few exceptions, but generally the situation is grave.

Dutee Chand

Dutee Chand doesn’t come from an affluent family background and has battled underprivileged conditions of all sort in a distant corner of Odisha. This young and promising athlete didn’t have very smooth carrier from early age of 17. Her performances range from holding a National record to winning bronze in Junior Asian Championship and from being the first Indian athlete (at the age of 17!!) to enter IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) World Championship to getting Olympic berth. At this young age, these are achievements any athlete, irrespective of their gender, will die for!

However, it was not the challenges on the track but ‘off-the-track’ which were multi-fold. Her gender was in question as she was banned to participate in Rio Olympics. IAAF found ‘extra testosterone’ in her body which means she wasn’t enough ‘woman’. ‘Science’ was used to define the ‘enough’ or ‘less’ womanhood that made Dutee Chand disqualify from 3 major events. This was the time when federation should have stepped in and stood next to her in this difficult time. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the Yuvraj Singh of Cricket, who was greatly backed up by BCCI during his cancer treatment. This pushed Dutee Chand in the dark and she was lost in between. Her Coach N Ramesh, Badminton Coach P. Gopichand and Bruce Kidd, a former athlete from Canada, were few individuals who believed in her and stood by her. She had to go the arbitration to prove her legitimacy; essentially to prove her gender!

The ‘sensational’ media was in action again. Indian newspapers were filled with those ‘allegations’ on her, which no-one even cared to understand, respond or defend. The mass hysteria works as such that these ‘allegations’ came out through brutal gaze towards Dutee Chand.  She could not stay around the sports fraternity and had to take refuge in Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad.

The support system male athletes are entitled to get in India are just not available (with some exception) to women athlete at all! The overall scenario works like that! However, she fought back on her own and now very much celebrated by all those who backed out in the time she needed them the most. Dutee Chand’s performance promises that she has many more years and many more achievements waiting for her. The colour of her silver medal in Jakarta truly represents her struggles at many fronts which should put these male-dominated federations in remorse and shame.

When Karnam Malleshwari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal everyone noticed that Indian women are also participating in Olympics. PT Usha did the same after winning multiple medals at Asia Games. I remember after bronze in Weightlifting everyone wanted to take credit for Malleshwari’s success. A successful male athlete can spare his credits for friends, family, coach and God. But, given the gender bias in Indian society, it is not possible for women athlete. Everyone jumped to take credit for her success. ‘Even (though) she was a woman, but I knew that she is going to make India proud’. This kind of common phrases from sports federations’ male officials summarize everything.

Hima Das’s success came through something similar like that. First, her gold medal at Junior World Championship and then 1 silver and 1 gold medal at Jakarta Asian Games made her immediate star overnight. She became first Indian woman Athlete to win at any level of World Championship. Hima Das is one of the top 5 athletes running in circuit right now and had so much potential in future. Though many sports federations and governments announced cash and kind prizes for her, but I wonder if this support will go much further than that? I wonder what if she would get stuck in a similar situation like Dutee Chand’s? Would the Federation withdraw themselves as they did in Dutee Chand’s case or would they back her? My hunch is that they will withdraw! (Though, I want to be proved wrong)

My assumptions have a material base as well. Whereas her difficult journey to overcome patriarchy and poverty would have been inspiring for all, but most of the people found looking for her caste background in internet. This casteist quest to know her caste seems to overshadow her years of hard training and struggles. She knows that this journey from her family’s paddy fields to track & field will have many of these continuous obstacles of casteism and patriarchy.

In this regard, wrestling seems to sort out bit of it. From the movie Dangal, the world got to know about the women wrestling scene in India (read North). Overnight Geeta Phogat became the household name, Mahavir became the liberal father and Haryana became the nursery of women wrestling. Popular image of Haryana also got little better because of it. This shift was changing the narrative from Caste and ‘honour’ related killing to women empowerment. (Geeta became the face of Beti Bachao Beti padhao). There is no denying in any of those stories (in some sense!) but, there is more to it. Especially when one try to un-weave the caste dynamics of it.

Divya bharat kesari

In nutshell, wrestling in India is dominated by dominant castes like; Jats or upper castes. No wonder most of the women players will come from these castes only. This has become an accepted norm from ushering years of women wrestling in India. With this background, Divya Kakran, coming from backward caste from a working-class neighbourhood in Delhi established herself. Unfolding her struggles had many aspects, caste is just one of it. In May 2017, Divya won a silver medal in Asian championship held in Delhi and in March 2018, she defeated Geeta Phogat quite comfortably in Bharat Kesari Dangal. These two were quite promising from many other performances from her kitty. Her performance at Jakarta Asian Games brought her bronze medal.

Divya, a daughter of homemaker mother and street-tailor father didn’t have financial resources to try big in wrestling. Unlike others, she neither did have a father like Mahavir who made decent money from property boom in Delhi/NCR nor did she have a larger clan support system to carry forward an expensive and demanding sport like wrestling. She had to fight the hardest battle in some of the miserable conditions. She got trained at Premnath’s Akhara in GurMandi, majorly a Dalit/Backward Caste neighbourhood.  Despite having Divya and many other promising junior level women wrestlers, the Akhara is in miserable condition even now. The building is not in ideal condition to produce national level players let alone that players who can compete in world level.

A cursory (but clearly myopic) look at immediate history of wrestling in India will give any reader a sense that it is popular either among well-to-do communities (read Brahmins) or rural/agrarian castes in North Indian state of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, (Jats, Gujjars and Ahirs). But, when one looks beneath this popular understanding it will be found that others (Dalit/OBCs and Muslims) have had their fair share in wrestling development in India. From Idgahi Maidan at Jama Masjid to numerous working class Akharas in and around industrial Delhi had a vibrant wrestling culture. Though, these Akharas fizzled out slowly, some with the decline and shift of industrial Delhi and some without any patronage from government.

Let’s not deny the fact that sports in India is not a ‘modern’ way of living (except cricket;). People still don’t look up to sports with due respect. It definitely makes people proud in these moments during big events, but it ends there! A popular saying from our childhood, पढ़ोगे लिखोगे बनोगे नवाब, खेलोगे कूदोगे बनोगे ख़राब, echoes this perfectly. On top of that, Women athletes have added pressure, expectations and post-carrier struggles and the respective federations should better understand that! Even if it is very new and hard for them to know!

There are numerous other stories which has made it or in making like these three. They need much more constant support as an equal individual from this casteist and patriarchal social setup, which is reckoning same in these federations as well.

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