India needs to promote woman power for better shot at Olympic medals

August 22 2017

A few months ago, I was on a panel discussing how more women could be engaged in sports or how equal opportunities could be created for them in sports. Sitting on a platform set up by the country's largest industry body that is backed by the government, it certainly did not make sense for anybody to criticise existing policies or programmes. Hence, I chose to present a case study -- one of the most successful initiatives by the US government to increase women's participation in sports -- Title IX.

Before I write about the Title, let me make a prediction: the US will once again be taking home the highest medal haul in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics -- almost 40 percent more than the second placed country (as it did in Rio in 2016 and before that in London) and most of those medals will be won by their women. I say that because unlike any other country in the world, women in the US have become a force for the Olympic team -- making the gap for their male counterparts wider to match.

In Rio, US women won 61 of the 121 medals claimed by the US, against 55 by the men (five medals came in mixed events); and 27 of the country's 46 golds. In London, women won 58 medals and the men 45.

However, this was not always the case. The credit for the rise of American women in sports goes to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a 45-year-old federal law that broadly prohibits gender discrimination in any educational programme that receives government funding. This rule means that schools must offer equal athletic opportunities to both sexes, a requirement that essentially funnels females into Olympic sports.

Colleges and high schools promoting soccer for boys have created different sports facilities and subsequently teams for their girl students in many streams. The trickle-down effect of Title IX is seen in areas where, at one point of time, it was almost unthinkable. It reflects in the number of youth leagues for the girls present in the country. I wonder if other nations -- I could not Google even one -- offer girls so many great sports options.

An American teenage girl from a family with below average income can afford to play waterpolo, do gymnastics, go for swimming and engage in basketball, football and soccer before deciding which sport she may continue with and excel at.

Take the example of Maggie Steffens, the captain of the US women's waterpolo team. In India, we may not know much about this defending world champion and winner of of an Olympic gold in London (she was the youngest player in the team) and Rio. Steffens grew up in suburban California where she could play basketball, soccer and gymnastics and go swimming and also joined a club waterpolo team before she reached her teens. At 14, she was leading the waterpolo team; at 22, she was a world champion. Interestingly, this is not a standalone story from the US; each champion, each winner, be it Michal Phelps or another athlete, have had great opportunities, tremendous support and uncompromised infrastructure and facilities to excel in multiple sports.

Arguably, many other countries are investing in sports development. However, most of the programmes tend to benefit the "elite" athletes. There's hardly a scheme or policy that gives budding sportspersons an environment to experiment with their talent or helps him or her in identifying the game of their interest, leave alone the mentorship that is needed at the beginning of your sporting career.

In total contrast to this, the US Olympic Committee keeps experimenting with new programmes each year. It spends millions of dollars only to create opportunities for young girls to engage in as many games as they can while the professional coaches and mentors are on the lookout for promising talent so as to guide them on a sport that they believe the girl may excel in. Yes, all before the girls are even in their teens.

In the US, the women's wave has been building for decades. So, if we are seeing American flags leading almost every sports event across the world and witness their women leading from the front, it is primarily because the country is the reaping benefits of the great investments it made at its grassroots sports over four decades ago through Title IX.

Can a similar law in India make a difference is a question to which no one can give a definite answer. However, with the current establishment's focus on empowerment of women, great investments are being made towards gender parity. Hence, something like an Indian version of Title IX makes much sense at this point.

Of course, Indian women have been making the country proud from the turn of the century when Karnam Malleshwari set the ball rolling. P.T. Usha, Ashwani Nachappa, the Phogat sisters, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza and so many others are an inspiration. India reflected the US's performance in terms of women winning more medals with P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik winning medals in Rio 2016 and Dipa Karmarkar turning in an excellent performance.

It's only now that more Indians are open to allowing women to play. The recent performance of the Indian women's cricket team at the World Cup attracted a lot of attention and, according to reports, girls registering for cricket coaching has gone up since then. We need more films like "Dangal" and "Chak De India" to bring women's sports into focus.

We need to enable women and support them in strengthening their resolve as they go into the next olympics. We need to get more girls come into the sporting system right from childhood and at the grassroots level.

Then let's sit back and feel proud as the wonder women win the laurels.

(Siddhartha Upadhyay is member of the Governing Body of the Sports Authority of India and Founder of STAIRS, an organisation dedicated to the uplift of sports. The views expressed at personal. He can be contacted at siddhartha@upadhyay.co)

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