The inspiring performance by Indian sportswomen at the Tokyo Olympics could signal the start of a new societal order.
While the country revels in the glory of unprecedented performances by the Indian contingent at the Tokyo Olympics, it is hard to ignore that this edition of the games served as a windfall event for Indian women. One day into the event, a weightlifter from one of India’s remotest hinterlands, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, set the course for the next two weeks by winning India’s first medal at the games – a silver medal. In the days that followed, India’s ace shuttler, PV Sindhu, and pugilist, Lovlina Borgohain – two women coming from very diverse backgrounds made the country proud again by securing bronze medals. What stood out for both was how they fought each of their battles with grit and determination, oftentimes bouncing back from the clutches of defeat.
When Aditi Ashok, a 23-year-old golfer ranked 200th in the world, participated at the games, most had written her off. Although she lost the medal by a stroke, finishing at 4th, Ashok stunned everyone with her tenacious overall performance. She maintained the 2nd position in 3 rounds out of 4, and even tied with the world number 1 and gold medalist Nelly Korda of USA and former world number 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand at one point of Round 4. Her confidence, grit, determination, consistency and persistence, despite the setback of finishing 41st in the previous edition of the games, displays an inspiring level of maturity. In many ways, Ashok is defining the new age Indian woman.
The story of Kamalpreet Kaur, a discus thrower, is filled with adversity. 25-year-old, Kamalpreet's journey has been extraordinary. She overcame many challenges at every stage of her career – systemic, economic, and societal – to secure the 6th position in the final.
No story of the Tokyo Olympics could be complete without mentioning the Indian Women’s Hockey team. This was the first women’s hockey team from India ever to reach the semifinals of the Olympics, missing out on a medal by a whisker. A peek into the backgrounds of several of these women reveals the adversities they had to face in their path to glory – economic hardships, socio-cultural barriers, and gender-based prejudice.
India has historically produced very few medal winners and it is no secret that the platform of opportunities for men and women in the Indian society has always been lopsided. As globalization brings about changes to societal traditions and opportunities for Indian women gradually grow, we could hope to see a more egalitarian future across sports and other spheres of life. The inspiring show at Tokyo could signal a future of many more achievements and medals by women for the country.
While there is still a long way to go, the success of Indian women at the Olympics arena validates that women typically demonstrate more grit, tenacity and persistence when faced with obstacles and constraints. Behavioral research studies from across the world show that due to the constrained conditioning of women from the beginning of time, they showcase greater adaptability compared to men. While the barriers are many, it is a collective responsibility of the Indian ecosystem to remove some of the greatest constraints which challenge Indian women from achieving greater heights and their full potential.
Economic barriers are bigger for women in India, compared to men
The story of Rani Rampal, the captain of the Indian hockey team, is no less inspiring than the greatest stories of grit and determination in history. Coming from one of the poorest sections of the society, her journey is one that screams of impossibility and improbability. With a mother who worked as a domestic help and a father who was a cart-puller, perhaps her biggest barrier was to break away from the expected path of economic contribution to her family through odd jobs or through nuptial attachment. While the road is tough for anyone coming from an economically deprived section of the society, the window of opportunity for women is even smaller.
Lack of facilities and infrastructure drain out talented women
While lack of facilities and infrastructure could pose a sizeable barrier for anyone, they pose even bigger challenges for a woman. At every step, women face issues which directly tie back to the lack of basic infrastructure, ranging from women’s safety to societal impediments (including the fear of victimization, shaming and social expulsion). Whether it is Deep Grace Ekka from Odisha or Savita Punia from Haryana, stories of the path they followed shows beyond doubt that the hurdles of infrastructure in India are so big that they can potentially drain even the most talented women.
Socio-economic barriers create a glass ceiling of expectations
When Vandana Kataria, coming from a remote village in Uttarakhand, started her journey into the sport of hockey, upper caste men would regularly bully her and her family to pursue her to leave the sport. Like Kataria, women in several communities are dissuaded from dreaming big, as a consequence of socio-economic evils such as patriarchy and pay disparity. These socio-economic barriers create an invisible glass ceiling of expectations which is hard for women to break through.
Women in sports: a limitless horizon of opportunity
Organizations are gradually realizing that by hiring and promoting sportswomen, they gain access to unique talent attributes. As the society gradually transforms and opportunities for women continue to grow, they are pushing the envelope when it comes to competitiveness and outcomes. For example, for a few years now, women have consistently come on top in the Standard 10 and 12 boards. At the same time, results in competitive examinations, such as the IAS and CAT, also feature women among the top spots. Corporate organizations from across the world are benefitting through their association as they bring in unique perspectives about teaming, efficiency, persistence, and productivity.