Equality of the sexes has an oft-expressed and immediately-forgotten motif in world sports. It took about a century, until 1999, before a woman could gain her place in the long room at the Lord's. Across the city, women are still fighting for equal prize money at the Wimbledon.
Cut to India, and the only women in sports that this nation remembers are Sania and Saina. The cheerleaders at IPL have probably gathered more screen-time than India's other sportswomen put together. Amid all this, the story of young Savita Punia from a village in Haryana now representing the nation at the Olympics is nothing short of fairytale-ish.
It has been a long wait for them – the women's hockey team last qualified for the Olympics in 1980. When we walk into the session, about six members of the team are gathered along with the coach. They resemble more a bunch of schoolgirls jumpy about finally going to college than international athletes. Their humility is a humbling experience in itself.
Savita walks over to us after a while. As we start talking initially, her shyness throws us off track, but once she gets comfy, she speaks so fast that I struggle to keep pace. Does the sudden media attention distract them or are they enjoying it? She blushes when we ask the question and says, “We are enjoying it. Everyone wants to be famous in their lives once in a while. Earlier, it did not matter what tournament we played, be it Test matches or four-nation tournaments. The newspapers used to publish the names of the players in the squad, but nothing after that—not even the results. But now, we are getting more coverage. Even if we do not get the right results, people at least know where we are playing, whom we are facing, what is the result.”
However, the girls are not ready to rest just yet. They realize that the pressure has only gotten bigger with the success. The burden of hope weighs heavy when Savita replies to our query on India's Olympic aspiration.
We have a very young team. “Qualifying for the Olympics was always our primary aim. Now that we have done it, these senior and former players call to congratulate us on our achievement. But they also remind us that we cannot rest just because we have qualified for Rio, we have to keep improving. “We cannot say we will win the gold medal at Rio because we know how tough the competition is out there. We hope to reach the quarter-final and be among the top six teams in the tournament.
Rohtak to Rio is a long way, and Savita still remains close to her roots despite all the new attention. We joke if she still loves being home after all the international tours, and she says, “Yes, my family still stays in the same village, and I still love being there (laughs). My relatives and friends say that, “I do not think you like it here anymore’. But that is not true. Because here we are always under pressure, and always working hard. We go back to our rooms to rest, then may be we will go for shopping—all that is fine, but the relaxation you feel at home can not be replaced. My mom, despite suffering from thyroid problems, still cooks food for me.”
Savita is the younger of two kids with an elder brother a year older. However, she has luckily not had to endure the normal life of girl from these parts, partly thanks to her family. She tells us about how all her school friends are married while she has been away winning medals for the nation. She lapses into nostalgia as she talks about the growing up that she appears to have missed out on.
“There are two very close friends of mine, who are actually my seniors, in my village. But I have not been able to get in touch with them recently.
When I was on my first tour, I had received an invitation of her marriage. I was shocked as to how someone can marry at such a young age. But there is nothing like that in my family. I am lucky that I was born in this family, because when I was small, and I saw a lot of news on the TV about female foeticide and infanticide. I used to tell my dad that I would put everyone in jail if something like that happens with me (laughs). But I have never felt anything other than love from my family.
Her parents must be real proud of what she has achieved in this short while? Bang comes the answer. “That is something only they can answer. But all I ever wanted was to earn respect from my parents, and that is something I have been able to do. My mom always tells me, 'anyone can become a doctor or an engineer, but what you have done is something we are very proud of’ ”.
Savita then tells us about her “first salary” experience. “When I played from my school and received my first scholarship money, I took it to my grandfather and grandmother. No one advised me to do that, it was something that came from within. I had always heard about how girls were ill-treated in Haryana, but my grandparents always treated me well. No only me, they did the same for my cousin sisters. They treated every girl in the family respectfully.”
Every girl in the team has a similar story - battling society, and financial difficulties. Most were lucky like Savita to have the backing to get through against the odds. They visit family twice in a year when they have a long break away from the gruel of international tours and practice camps. This year has especially been strenuous with the run-up to the Olympics, says Savita.
However, the experiences over the year appear to have melded the girls into a second family of sorts. We ask who the biggest pranksters in the team are and Savita says, “I would say Vandana (Kataria) and Poonam Rani. They keep joking all the time. Then there is Grace (Deep Grace Ekka) as well. Does not matter how much tough the training session is, as soon as the session ends, they start having fun, and make others laugh. Everyone enjoys that. Dipika Thakur didi, who is our senior, is quite naughty as well (laughs).”
Back to business, and we ask how they are looking at the Olympics and the teams. “Personally my favorite team is Holland. They play quick passes. They have the best drag flickers for penalty corners. So the best thing for us is that they are not in our pool. There is Australia and New Zealand, and we have had some close matches against them in the past 3-4 tours. In the Test match we lost on shootout, in New Zealand we had a 1-1 draw. We have played a lot against Australia, and that has given us a lot of confidence. We will know exactly where we stand when we face them again at Rio,” she says confidently.
The qualification has however helped them get to the next level. As we walk out Savita talks about how they struggled, until recently, without even the basic facilities that we take for granted speaking to an international athlete – the girls did not have laptops to watch match replays until recently.
“At first we did not have a video analyst. We had to sit and watch the whole video of the game, rewind it again and play it forward. But now we have someone who sorts out each aspect of the game into separate videos—be it for penalty corners, for the defence, for the attack, or for free hits. So it is easier for us to understand our mistakes and work on them. Now we have 4-5 laptops, and every girl queues up to watch the videos at the end of the match,” says Savita, matter of fact.
Sport in this country has a long way to go, it appears – any sport that does not feature a bat. However, this motley bunch of girl-women have taken it in their stride. They still have a long way to go as well – their campaign will very well end earlier than they hope, but they have already achieved something remarkable against all odds. Even if they do not win an improbable-looking medal, they have paved the way for a generation of girls who will look up to them over the years. The medal may not appear now because we as a nation do not deserve it, but the road looks a wee bit brighter. Good luck, girls!