It was the year 2000. This journalist, while still trying to figure the rollercoaster that is Indian sport, was dispatched to cover a junior national women’s hockey tournament. Being held on Mumbai’s lone astro turf surface, there was considerable excitement to watch proceedings, predictably. But not for the players, many of who hailed from the interiors or Bihar, Orissa and Nagaland – areas where access to such facilities were possibly far and few. However, this wasn’t their primary concern. Leaking taps, limited water supply and smelly bunk beds were.
As the tournament got underway, countless skeletons emerged from the closet, quicker than penalty corner conversions. To our horror, we stumbled upon how some of India’s young talent was subject to unspeakable living conditions. “How can we focus on the game?” bolder players would ask; while others chose to stay silent and somehow, deliver their best. Coaches were horrified that their teenage wards were made to stay in such quarters, as they begged the press to push for their case. As coverage about these facilities (or lack of it) surfaced from all corners, finally, the authorities blinked. Things improved as many teams were shifted to better spaces. We were treated to some terrific games, packed with displays of dribbling wizardry and deft stickwork. Later, as we followed the fortunes of some of these young players, it warmed us immensely to see them shine at the highest level, nationally, and internationally too.
The above episode flashed back in front of us as news that our senior national women’s team had qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics reached us. This would be the first time since 1980, when the team finished fourth at Moscow. It’s one thing that women’s sport (cricket even) exploits tend to get sidelined in India but another when such an achievement comes while having to swim against the tide. Of course, facilities and sponsors would have surely improved since those grey times, and we’re sure that teams are treated far better. But the lingering doubts about these unsung women champs getting their due prevail. Blame this pessimism on having to witness those scenes early in our career. Then again, we we'd like to be proven wrong, with the hope that positive, refreshing winds are blowing in favour of India’s sportswomen.
The signs of this changing imprint are there – from Sania, Saina and Sindhu to our cricketers and athletes, their achievements are making us sit up and take note. We would love to see more champs; this can’t happen unless there is sustained backing across district, state and the national levels. Of course, mindsets and perceptions of the common Indian sports fans also need to change. We’d like to start by throwing in the first question – Who is India’s women’s hockey team captain?
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day