India must celebrate and treasure both. The Commonwealth Games have been an almost unqualified success for India on the field, although shambolic they are from the point of view of organization and safeguarding the rights of labourers. Already, it is our best medal tally in any major international sports event. And the medals have come not just in traditional strong points like shooting, but in everything from archery to wrestling to athletics. And significantly, the medal winners have tended to come from every strata of Indian society, from thoughtful scion Abhinav Bindra to phoenix like Kavita Raut.
The broader implications of this success have been discussed on The South Asian Idea blog, which compares India’s brilliant success with Pakistan’s dismal failure. The increasing penetration and access to institutions like schools and clubs are helping identify and nurture talent; although India has a long way to go before establishing a thriving culture of sport. But I want to particularly emphasize the human element in these medals. We have to celebrate not just the physical and technical achievement of our winners; but also the mental strength to overcome what would seem to be almost impossible odds. Poverty, social pressures, lack of facilities; you name it.
“I took to running as I can do it barefooted.”
After 52 long years, India won its first medal in athletics at a major event, courtesy Kavita Raut of Savpada, Maharashtra. Born in a tribal family, she attracted attention when she won the silver medal in a national school meet, in bare feet. She would run twenty kilometres to fetch water when the river in Savpada would dry up in the summer. Her coach, Vijender Singh, adamantly told her family that she had to put her lungs to better use than just haul water. Well, she did and many more Kavita’s might be on their way.
“I was wrong. I underestimated her”.
Shiv Charan Prajapati did not think his daughter had a future in archery. A standard 11 student of Jamshedpur’s KMPM college, Deepika, like Raut, hails from a tribal family used to living in hardship. Life took a turn when she was spotted by scouts of an archery academy established by the wife of current Jharkhand CM, Arjun Munda. Her determination and talent overcame her father’s cynicism and gave young Indian girls a role model, a better one than perhaps the ones they are regularly exposed to.
One can clearly see the structural improvements that have enabled these young women to win medals for their country. Both had access to schools, both were noticed by scouts and gained access to good coaching. But what they had to overcome to succeed was overwhelming. Poverty, gender issues and facilities less stellar than many of their competitors. I hope we learn from their stories and preserve them. I know who I am going think of when I feel out of breath after mile 8 of my training for an upcoming half-marathon. If we pass their stories on, maybe we will learn to be better people today and a better society tomorrow.