Women and Sports:

A Not-so-level Playing Field

Sports is ultimately about the human body. Which is why the remarkable barometer of the physical differences between men and women and the social perceptions about these differences. Mumbai-based senior science writer, Padma Prakash, had observed in a monograph she wrote in the early nineties on women and sport, that "nowhere is this myth of (women's) biological inferiority so readily and forcefully demonstrable as in the sports arena. And nowhere can it be effectively demolished."   

So what are these physical differences,
stripped to the bone?

The male body, generally speaking, is bigger built and weighs more than the average female body, is endowed with a larger heart and lungs and is estimated to be about 30 per cent stronger. There are significant hormonal differences too. Men have a greater concentration of testosterone in their bodies that help to create more red blood cells. These factors, in turn, have implications for the intake and delivery of oxygen, which are directly linked to sporting performance. It is estimated that when a man is running at about half his capacity, a woman would need to run at over 70 per cent of her capacity just to equal his pace. On the plus side, women tend to be more sensitive to sound and have better night vision. Then, of course, there is the difference in their reproductive roles: Women attain puberty at least two years earlier to men, have a greater body fat percentage and give birth - a function that does impact greatly on their ability to participate in sports. 

The received wisdom over the years has been that women's bodies are delicate and need to be protected at all times. History, however, has an interesting way of exploding such myths. In 1926, renowned archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler unearthed a bronze figurine of a dancing girl from a Mohenjo-daro site. Later, he described her thus: "She's about fifteen years old I should think...A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world." Clearly, even 4000 years ago, women knew how to get the best out of their bodies. And women in the sports arena are proving it to this very day, whether through the power-packed tennis of a Serena Williams or the quicksilver boxing of India's own Mary Kom, five-time world champ.  

Yet, we need to recognise that every woman who excels in sports has to work immeasurably harder than her male counterparts to reach where she is, more so in a country like India where gender discrimination is hardwired into social reality. Going by recent evidence, Indian sportswomen have to contend with at least four hurdles in their race to the finishing line: Social attitudes; administrative inertia and poor resource provisioning; sexual harassment; and family expectations and commitments. Each of these factors reinforces the other. It may be useful to recall here that when Independence dawned in 1947, leaders like Rajkumari Amrit Kaur had realised the importance of women's participation in sport for nation building. More recently, in 1995, India committed itself to the Beijing Platform that urges governments to enable girls to participate in sport and physical activity on the same basis as men and boys through the creation of programmes in schools, at the workplace and in the community.  

Despite all this, India continues to treat its sportswomen shabbily. Every woman athlete in the country would understand the humiliation of a P.T. Usha, one of the country's greatest athletes of all time, who broke down before television cameras during the National Open Athletics Championship in Bhopal in 2009, after being denied accommodation in keeping with her status - she was asked to share a room with five other women. Women cricketers and members of the women's hockey team playing for India are constantly pointing out that while their performances have equaled and even bettered those of their male counterparts, the treatment accorded to them in terms of facilities and monetary compensation is distinctly second class. 

Such treatment is not accidental. It reflects the unquestioned social biases and prejudices of a seemingly equal society and an ostensibly neutral administration. Often such biases turn positively toxic, especially when women sportspersons come to be regarded as sexual prey.

Whether it is a Ruchika Girhotra two decades ago or women hockey players in the present team, innumerable, often anonymous women have been subjected to criminal and sexually overt behaviour from those who often are in a position to decide their fate as participants in the field. As the additional district and session judge noted in the Ruchika molestation case, "She used to play lawn tennis in the courts of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association (HLTA) with the sole aim to become a good player. The convict was a senior police officer and HLTA President at the time of the incident. As police officer his role was to protect the public. As president of HLTA his role was to train young budding players for India. But he failed in both duties by molesting a minor girl." The judge also noted that "as long as such persons are at the helm of affairs, the presence of women in the sports activities cannot be increased and real talent cannot be brought forward to represent the country in various sports". An important observation. Indian sports stand undermined, every time a sportswoman is subjected to such behaviour. 

Family commitments can also often be a show stopper, given the centrality that society and family accords to marriage and child bearing in a woman's life. Manipur's Mary Kom has revealed how her father objected to her taking up boxing because he felt that it would spoil her face and ruin her marriage prospects. Wrestlers, sisters Geeta and Babita Kumari, from rural Haryana, had to contend with sharp verbal attacks from local villagers and the larger family, who maintained that nobody would marry a wife with muscles, and that wrestling like men brings dishonour to women. But Kom and the Haryana sisters have been able to negotiate their way to sporting glory.  

In fact, change will come, it has to come - not because of a more enlightened sports administration but because of the sportswomen themselves. India, despite its patent lack of a sporting culture for women from the school level onwards, has had many women, who have defied the odds. Women like a Kamaljit Sandhu, who won the gold for the 400 metres at the Bangkok Asiad in 1970, a Karnam Malleswari, the only Indian woman Olympic medalist, or a Saina Nehwal, presently ranked No 2 in world badminton.  

Women like them have challenged stereotypes, re-defined parametres, expanded horizons and brought sporting glory to themselves and their country. This is also about freedom and testing the limits of endurance. As Jude Howell, director of the Centre for Civil Society, London school of Economics, and a runner in the London Marathon once told me, "There are many reasons why I like running. I love the sense of space when one goes running. You feel refreshed and have a whole new burst of energy. Besides, there's that sense of freedom." 

By arrangement with WFS          


More by :  Pamela Philipose

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