Equal opportunity, equal say - India's best on what women athletes want from the system


Women's Day is an opportunity to look past the tokenism and evaluate how far Indian sport has come in the effort to make it a truly level playing field. Here we get the views of five of India's pre-eminent sportswomen on the biggest challenge they faced growing up as a woman athlete, and the change they would like to see.


The challenges she faced

I think that as young women from our side of the world, when you do something outside of the box, we are told more often that we can't do it than that we can. The minute you choose something that is different [there are questions] 'you can't do it, what makes you think you can do it?'

That is a societal thing that we all deal with in different layers and different professions. But at any given point of time all women will come and tell you yeah, I dealt with this where somebody was like, 'Oh, why do you want to be this? Why don't you just be this?' We're always told what to do.

And the fact that being an athlete doesn't really come as the most natural choice to a lot of young girls because they think playing in the sun will make you dark, you will become a tomboy, you will have to play with boys, chaddi pehenke kheloge (you'll have to play in your underwear).

The changes she'd like to see

These kind of things are slowly changing but I'm talking about 30 years ago, when I started you can only imagine how that used to be. So I think that's why when an Indian woman athlete achieves something, they are not only fighting on court or on the field, they are also fighting their odds off the field because of the kind of high pressure that come the norms of society.

I think that is what is probably the most challenging. I would love for that to change, equal opportunity should be the most important thing.


The challenges she faced

I come from a small village near Haridwar, called Roshanabad. The first obstacle was financial. My two sisters and I all played hockey, and we had to share one pair of shoes. Once I got serious about hockey, I decided to leave.

I had a lot of support from my parents, but the people in the village would talk about me. They said why should she play, why should she study, she has to grow up and make rotis like everyone else. All that used to go on, so I wanted to leave. And I never wanted to go back to the village.

The changes she'd like to see

Family support. When I started playing, I didn't even know I could reach this far, but it's the support of my family that brought me here. But I see so many other girls in my village and in other places, who can't even think of doing what they want. They can't even discuss it with their parents. Everyone needs a support system, not just athletes. The mentality of parents must change for women in general and especially for women athletes to do well in life.


The challenges she faced

The [biggest challenge is the] general perception of people in India towards women athletes, taking up sports as a career for women. I have seen a huge shift in that perspective in the last few years, since the time women's athletes started doing well and winning medals across disciplines. Also backed by the government of India by the various campaigns have made a huge difference to the life of some athletes.

The changes she'd like to see

I would change the way people compare women's sport to men's sport. The change of corporates investing more in women athletes as brand endorsers, ambassadors.

People should watch sport as sport and not differentiate between men's football and women's football, those things shouldn't come into sport. Watch it because every athlete, a man or a woman spends the same amount of time training, probably the woman has far bigger challenges because of the way our society looks at sports for women but again the sort of challenges an athlete faces on field is similar so shy the difference in perspective in watching it?


The challenges she faced

It's important for the federation bosses to discuss things with the athletes: which tournaments do you want to play, what is the coach like... for us, everything is forced on us, we are told things, nothing is discussed. When we talk about pressure at the elite level, there is already a lot of pressure on us, and we can live without more pressure from the federation.

We discuss mental health a lot now. When an athlete doesn't do well, or when we say we can't do this or that, it's not an excuse. It's because we genuinely can't do this or that. It is not a sign of weakness, as it is made out to be. In fact, it is because I am strong that I am standing up and saying that I can't do it. If I had been weak, I would have kept quiet.

The changes she'd like to see

If a woman athlete says something, it needs to be dealt with sensitively and not ignored. That's the support we need. We have the support of our families, but we need this kind of emotional support too, at the federation level and at national camps.

When an athlete raises his or her voice about something bad that's going on - we should all be doing it - they need to be trusted. If we premier athletes raise our objection about something, it must be true. We can't be running from door to door. All sportspersons must be together. We must stand together. If I say this has happened, I must expect the support of my colleagues.


When things are going well, everyone supports you. It's when you are low that you need support. If someone sits down with you, spends five-ten minutes, and asks you, shows concern, asks you what's wrong, it helps a lot. The player will definitely get up and start training again.

We get judged too quickly. That's wrong. We are trying to be better, trying to be stronger. We need kindness and support.

The changes she'd like to see

The first thing is to have women in the sports federations.

If women are playing sports at the highest level and bringing glory to India, why can't women be represented in the sports federations? Women have their unique requirements, and it's easier for women to speak to other women. There are things we can't discuss with men. Especially when it's not going well for you.


Sania Mirza, Mithali Raj and Vandana Katariya spoke exclusively to ESPN.in; Vinesh Phogat and Rani Rampal spoke to the media during the Trailblazers Sports Conclave, organised by RevSportz.