The Golden Girls of Indian Hockey
Women have had a long history of discrimination in sports, and the accomplishments of female athletes have been important milestones in their fight for gender equality. Indian women’s recent successes in hockey coincided with the Cricket World Cup in March. While many were following the pursuits of the Men in Blue, not many were there to cheer in the stands when the women’s hockey team won the second round of the FIH Hockey World league. As the women demolished Poland 3-1, they all but secured their participation in the Olympics next year.
In a recent interview, Ritu Rani, who has been captaining India since 2011, believes qualification for the Olympics will be a huge boost for the team. The last time the team qualified for the showpiece event was in 1980. Her record comprises a third place in 2013 Asian Cup in Kuala Lumpur and a bronze at the Asian Games two years ago. The recent triumph in the second round is a major breakthrough in their quest for international glory as well as national attention. The Rio Olympics in 2016 is the team’s next target.
Vandana Kataria was one of the glittering stars of the recent triumph. Quick on the ball and always ready to help the defense, she netted eleven goals, including two hat-tricks. The striker, however, laments the absence of a domestic league to nurture new talent. The Hockey India League has been instrumental for men in terms of training youngsters and giving them the exposure of playing against foreign players. A similar league for their female counterparts would do wonders.
For hockey fans in the country, the men’s games are televised. Indian goalkeeper Savita Punia, who heroically blocked more than half a dozen goals against Japan in the Semis, believes that the channels should screen their matches once they reach the quarterfinals too. After all, they work equally hard.
The money involved isn’t high, so most of them have secondary jobs to secure their households. Their financial conditions still border on the mediocre. Rani Rampal, for instance, debuted for India at the tender age of fourteen. Now 20, she was instrumental in the team getting past Italy and Japan, en route to their semifinal win. Despite this, her father has to plough the land to put food on the table.
The team recently returned to a grand welcome after a successful outing at the semi-finals held in Belgium. A large group of officials and media were present, and players were surrounded by cheers and loud drums. But there was hardly any support throughout the second round of the Indian leg of the tournament. Empty stands welcomed both India and Poland during the final match.
While a handful of Polish supporters had flown all the way from their country to support their team, even fewer Indians witnessed the historic win at the Major Dhyan Chand stadium in New Delhi.
In recent years, the team’s most sought after achievement had been the Commonwealth victory in 2002. The triumph was the setting for Chak De India, a blockbuster Hindi movie. The moving story of how the underdogs emerge winners amidst all odds caught the imagination of the public. But that was eight years ago. The Indian women were in the limelight for a while, but quickly slipped back into oblivion.
Things are improving, no doubt. A robust media exposure in the last few decades has been instrumental in capturing some of the greatest successes of the nation. Stalwarts such as Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and MC Mary Kom have changed the perception of young girls. Their success has been celebrated with unprecedented fervour and has generated immense support.
Haryana, with its skewed sex ratio and high number of female foeticides and honour killings, has been brought to light for being regressive, and not without reason. Yet, the state has unearthed a number of female athletes for the country. The state government has put in place a number of incentives and schemes to promote budding talent, and promised employment to medal-winning athletes.
Many believe that the World Cup win in 1983 was responsible for hauling cricket above other sports in the nation. Are we responsible for not supporting our so-called national sport? Or is the Federation to blame for not providing adequate facilities and coverage to the women’s matches? It has become a vicious cycle.
As the glamour of cricket continues to fascinate us, the Women in Blue quietly go about with their game, waiting for an official Olympic confirmation in October. For them, winning is all that matters.