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Thank you, girls, we need you more than Sush and Ash

New Delhi, Aug. 11: Mary did not get the gold. Saina stopped short of silver. The others didn’t get even that far — Krishna made it to the finals, Tintu to the semi-finals, Geeta to pre-quarter finals, and Deepika lost out in the first round itself.

Yet what the Indian women Olympians — Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal of course, but also Krishna Poonia, Geeta Phogat, Tintu Luka, Deepika Kumari — achieved in London cannot be measured by small discs of metal alone. What they achieved was something much more profound, something intangible and sublime; what they achieved was taking on (unbeknownst to themselves) the gorgeous apparitions that have haunted Indian girls since 1994 and offering an alternative paradigm of aspiration and hope.

Eighteen years ago, on another world stage, two young Indian women made history. Sushmita Sen was crowned Miss Universe and Aishwarya Rai became Miss World. Back in the 1960s, India had won the Miss World crown once but 1994 was different.

The economic reforms had just been unleashed, change was in the air, television was beginning to change our ways of looking at ourselves and the world, and a newly emerging middle class was acquiring an appetite for “success” on a much bigger scale than an earlier generation had ever dreamed of.

The “twin triumphs” of 1994, therefore, had a far wider impact than a beauty contest result normally should, and gave fillip to a fashion and glamour industry that still has huge numbers of Indians in its thrall. Over the next few years, Indian women kept winning international beauty titles and then taking that route to Bollywood.

For every girl who made it, there were thousands of others who did not — but nevertheless sought the “beauty and glamour” route to fame and fortune. Beauty contests and fashion shows proliferated, not just in the metros but even in small towns across India, as film stars, starlets and fashion models — their “celebrity” quotient magnified manifold by the media — became the new role models for countless numbers who inhabit that universe called “Youngistan”.

But with due apologies to Sush and Ash (and Lara Dutta, Diana Hayden, Yukta Mookhey…), what our girls managed in London this month was of a different order altogether. For all of us who watched them on the courts or in the ring, on the track or in the field, their losses were heart-breaking. But that they even got there — at the greatest sporting event in the world, competing with rivals who hail from countries with far greater sporting traditions and facilities and support systems than India offers — was heart-warming.

Billed as favourites from the start, huge numbers of Indians watched Mary Kom’s two battles in the ring and every match Saina played against the formidable Chinese girls. That their matches took place in the evening, Indian time, also helped.

But it was equally thrilling to watch the discus and the 800m semi-finals, telecast much later at night. It was while watching the women’s discus throw final that it struck me how much more beautiful these women were — giant women from eastern Europe, China, Cuba, US with a grace that belied their size —than all those leggy models who walk the ramp!

And there she was, Krishna Poonia, hurling the discus on a cold and blustery London evening which even the commentators conceded were far from ideal conditions. That she managed a 63.6m distance (albeit below her personal best of 64.76m) and finished seventh was an achievement we haven’t appreciated enough. In eighth position was Stephanie Brown Trafton of the US — and she had won the gold in discus at Beijing four years ago.

The same goes for frail young Tintu Luka. The girl from a small village in Kerala ended up sixth in the 800m semi-final last night, clocking 1:59:61 but as her coach, the iconic P.T. Usha, said after the race: “Still, I’d say she ran very well…. It’s not easy going under two minutes. She’s young and needs lots of experience — she’ll do better in the coming years.”

The same can be said for Deepika, the 18-year-old archery ace from Jharkhand, who was shattered on crashing out at the very first round. Instead of blaming the weather and the unaccustomed crowds on the stands, she told reporters: “It might sound stupid but I never competed in surroundings like the one at Lord’s…. Technically, we are as good as anyone but we have got a lot of work to do on the mental side of the game. More than a foreign coach, we need a psychiatrist.”

Geeta Phogat, the first-ever woman wrestler from India to qualify for the Olympics after winning a gold at the qualifying tournament in Kazakhstan this April, was equally devastated. But just by getting there and wrestling valiantly, she showed us what Indian girls are capable of against women bigger and better trained than them.

The added bonus of having our largest contingent at the Olympics is that millions of Indians who know little about sports (other than cricket, of course) watched London 2012 with greater interest than ever before. After tuning in for discus, for instance, I was hooked enough to watch the women’s shot put, javelin, pole vault; and while patriotism made us root for Tintu Luka (800m) and Sahana Kumari (high jump), it was a treat to watch all the other track and field events where Indians did not figure.

That is one more reason why this Olympics can well prove a turning point for Indian sports, especially for women, just as 1994 was for the beauty business. Television. In track and field, Indian girls — Kerala girls to be precise —had done the country proud a long time ago. Usha, Shiny Wilson, Anju Bobby George still evoke memories of sporting glory — although none managed a medal at the Olympics. Their heyday were before the electronic media revolution, with all its hype, had seized the imagination of the nation.

But Saina and Mary are now household names. Deepika, Krishna, Geeta and Tintu are known outside the narrow confines of sports journalism. And young girls across India have new role models to look up to — to women from humble backgrounds who have honed their raw talent through sheer grit and stamina, relentless hard work and endless hours of training.

Indians love to whine about how poorly we do at the Olympics and blame everything — genes, nutrition, poor infrastructure and political apathy or interference — for it. But one key reason is despite a population of over a billion people, a majority of it under 25, the catchment area to draw talent from has been very small. That can only change when much larger numbers of young people take to sports on a daily basis — kick a ball, run a mile, jump hurdles, swim, take up a game, wrestle, shoot, shuttle, the choice is almost endless.

That’s not going to happen overnight. But thanks to Saina and Geeta, Krishna and Mary, many more girls in India may now prefer sneakers to stilettos, muscles to mascara, and amateur sports clubs of all hues might mushroom in small town India just as beauty parlours did a decade or two ago. Forget gold, silver, bronze. They have given us a medal called hope.

Closing ceremony at 1.30am IST


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  • Thank you, girls, we need you more than Sush and Ash