Girls just wanna score runs: Why 2018 was a banner year for women in sport

By Kahini Iyer

Women in sports are making up for lost time by smashing records while stoking the pride of the nation. From the on-field exploits of Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur, to the athletic feats of PV Sindhu, Hima Das, Mary Kom, and their peers, female athletes have forced naysayers to eat their words.

A couple of weeks ago, we were treated to an early Christmas gift from national badminton superstar, PV Sindhu. Sindhu won her first gold medal at the Badminton World Federation finals, defeating Nozomi Okuhara of Japan to win it all in the sport’s biggest event after the Olympics. After two years of winning silver after silver in various international tournaments, making it to the finals but not being able to crack gold, Sindhu finally silenced the critics who’d accused her of lacking the mental fortitude to be a true champion.

If anything, 23-year-old Sindhu’s triumph is a fitting cap on a year where female athletes have defied societal expectations like never before, and forced naysayers to eat their words. Women’s T20 cricket has made a mark, as much for the exciting gameplay as for the controversy surrounding skipper Harmanpreet Kaur when she excluded star batswoman Mithali Raj from the World Cup squad, citing poor form. Although many fans claimed that the move might have cost India the semi-final against England, the scandal also generated an interest in the women’s game that we’ve rarely seen – as well as a new enfant terrible in Indian sport.

Raj, like her men’s counterpart Virat Kohli, is a prodigious runmaker, having scored seven consecutive half-tons in ODIs, and led the Indian team in two ODI World Cups. And she’s proven to be just as bombastic as Kohli: She has been extraordinarily outspoken in interviews, and in addition to her very public dispute with Kaur, has butted heads with the BCCI over her captaincy style, even threatening to retire from the sport over the governing body’s interference.

From Sourav Ganguly to Cristiano Ronaldo, we’re used to seeing legendary sportsmen with egos to match. But women players, perpetually expected to be earning their place, are rarely afforded the luxury of embodying the brash self-confidence and fighting spirit that make them so effective on the pitch. Regardless of what others say about her, Raj has made it clear that she sees herself as a woman who deserves to be on top.

And she’s not the only one. In September, we saw the GOAT, Serena Williams, make a comeback to professional tennis after giving birth. A four-time Olympic gold medallist with a world record of 23 Grand Slams under her belt, Williams’ track record of excellence is so consistent that her losses are more noteworthy than her wins, and her US Open defeat to newcomer Naomi Osaka was no exception. When she was penalised – many would say unfairly – for her coach’s behaviour, Williams broke her racquet in frustration, and then confronted the chair umpire.

Nor was this the only time Williams challenged the powers that be this year. When, at the French Open, she was instructed to wear the traditional skirt instead of her black bodysuit, specially designed to improve blood circulation following her pregnancy, Williams irreverently shot back at the outdated mores by showing up in a fluffy tutu.

More and more middle-class girls and their families, looking at the wrestling Phogat sisters from Haryana, and Assamese wunderkind 18-year-old sprinter Hima Das, are starting to realise that athletics are far from a waste of time.

Closer home was the riveting return to form of fellow mid-30s mom-cum-world-champion, flyweight boxer Mary Kom. On the heels of a gold medal at the Asian Women’s Championship in November 2017, Kom followed up with a Commonwealth gold last April. In November she won her sixth World Championship, and proved that the 2014 biopic about her life was wildly premature.

Of course, this is a typical example of how quickly we write women athletes off before their time. After all, few people expected that gymnast Dipa Karmakar would come back from a horrific knee injury to vault her way to a gold in the Artistic Gymnastic World Challenge Cup in July, and make Indian history in the process; even fewer would have said, at this time last year, that women’s cricket could inspire fans as ardent as any Tendulkar worshipper, or that new mothers would be the greatest sports stars of 2018.

Little wonder, then, that women going above and beyond in sports, making up for lost time by smashing old records and setting new ones, stoking the pride and excitement of the nation, has become almost commonplace. More and more middle-class girls and their families, looking at the wrestling Phogat sisters from Haryana, and Assamese wunderkind 18-year-old sprinter Hima Das, are starting to realise that athletics are far from a waste of time. And, like Williams, Indian sportswomen have fought to change the status quo that has so often held them back.

From runner Dutee Chand, who compelled no less than the International Olympic Committee to change their arbitrary ban on women with high testosterone levels, before triumphantly bagging a silver at this year’s Asian Games; to tennis star Sania Mirza, who not only continued to compete after marriage, but is preparing for the 2020 Olympics after having a child this year, sportswomen are smashing the patriarchy on all our behalves. As 2019 brings the promise of bigger leaps and new achievements for women in sport, it’s time we set the bar higher – not just for athletes, but for ordinary women who fight the same battles off the pitch.

The article has been originally published on Arre.

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