You throw like a girl. You run like a girl. The phrases that were once used as gendered jibes meant to emasculate the manliest of men have now lost a little bit of their efficacy—considering that the world’s most powerful women today are on par with men, and often even outpace them, metaphorically and literally. Just like every other walk of life, women have had to fight for equality in the sphere of sports as well, making the history of women in sports a tumultuous one.
The year 1896 saw Athens host the first Olympics Games in modern history. And it was in 1900 that women participated in the prestigious sporting event for the first time, at the Games held in Paris. But only 22 out of 997 athletes competing here were women. While it looked like the Games didn’t take too long to include women, their numbers were never the same as their male counterparts. The reasons for this initial disparity are endless, and it can be argued that since sport has historically functioned as a way to define masculinity, female participation was marginalised—many institutions and programs were conservative and did not contribute to gender equity in sports, while a range of financial costs, traditional family responsibilities and cultural and religious barriers stood in the way of increased female participation. While more women did begin participating in sports over the years, men and women continued to compete separately—in fact, mixed sex competitions only exist in a few sports (such as dressage and relay races) even today. Coming to financial differences, equal pay continues to remain a work in progress in this industry, just like any other, with Indian squash champion Dipika Pallikal Karthik staying away from the National Championships between 2012 and 2015, and only returning when the prize money for male and female winners was made equal.
Cut to 2018, and history has seen the rise of a battalion of iconic female athletes thanks to the endless pool of existing female talent, and the efforts of advocates who have championed for women to participate in sports and get paid for the same, for the media to spotlight burgeoning talent and for governments to support them. This support has led to rise of the likes of Russia’s Nadia Comăneci, a five-time Olympic Gold medallist and the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score at the Olympics; Jackie Mitchell, one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history; Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel; tennis player Serena Williams, who holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined among active players; and Indian boxer Mary Kom, who is the only woman to become the World Amateur Boxing champion for a record six times. Alongside such international icons, the female Indian athlete has also, slowly but surely, been rising. Scroll ahead for our list of the young achievers who are making great strides in their chosen fields.
Dutee Chand, sprinter
The professional sprinter was the third Indian woman to ever qualify for the Women’s 100 metres event at the Summer Olympic Games, and won a silver in 100m at the Asian Games 2018— India’s first medal in this category since 1998. The run-up to victory was a long and arduous road for the 23-year-old from Orissa, who has clearly fielded her share of heartbreak—Chand was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games contingent at the last minute after the Athletic Federation of India stated that hyperandrogenism (a medical condition characterised by excessive levels of androgens) made her ineligible to compete as a female athlete. Chand subsequently appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the IAAF’s (The International Association of Athletics Federations) the policy on hyperandrogenism was suspended following the case, leaving the 23-year-old free to compete and race to victory.
Harmanpreet Kaur, cricketer
Punjab-born Harmanpreet Kaur became the first woman to score a century for India in a women’s Twenty20 International match, and in 2017, received the Arjuna Award for Cricket—making her a national hero. She made her debut at the age of 20, playing against eternal rivals Pakistan at the 2009 Women’s Cricket World Cup, and in October 2018, was named as the captain for India’s squad for the 2018 ICC Women’s World Twenty20 tournament in West Indies—where the 30-year-old became the leading run-scorer for India.
Rani Rampal, field hockey player
Current captain of the Indian field hockey team, Haryana-born Rampal is considered one of the best hockey players in the world. The now-24-year-old has spoken about how her parents weren’t initially open to her playing a sport professionally in previous interviews, stating that it took serious convincing for them to allow her to pursue her career—a tale we’ve often heard among sportswomen in India. A cart-puller’s daughter from a small village in Haryana, Rampal has fought against personal and professional odds. And it was only with her contribution that the Indian women’s hockey team won a historic silver at the 18th Asian Games, and another silver at the Asian Champions Trophy in 2018.
Smriti Mandhana, cricketer
The 22-year-old made her made her test cricket debut in August 2014 against England at Wormsley Park, and was part of the Indian team to reach the finals at the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup. In February 2019, she became the youngest T20 captain for India when she led the team against England in Guwahati.
Dipa Karmakar, artistic gymnast
Breaking barriers, jumping over hurdles (more than just figuratively) and making headlines while she’s at it—25-year old Karmakar holds the distinction of being the first Indian female gymnast to compete in the Olympics ever, and the first Indian gymnast to do so in 52 years. According to reports, she’s also one of the only five women to successfully land the Produnova, which is regarded as the most difficult vault currently performed in women’s gymnastics. While the last few years have seen her down with a set of injuries, we’re eager to see her make her return. Fun fact: Barbie’s released a new range of dolls to honour the current global female role models for their 60th anniversary, modelling one on Karmakar in the now-iconic Olympic look.
Neha Pardeshi, rugby player
India’s general indifference to any sport other than cricket has been joked about for years, but with the rise of tennis, badminton and even running stars, we’ve slowly started to shift focus to other sports. However, one that still escapes our attention is rugby. Captain of the Indian women’s rugby sevens team and one of the pillars of rugby in Asia, Pardeshi’s efforts are focused towards getting the sport the recognition it deserves. She started off participating in fencing, handball and athletics, but began to focus on rugby about ten years ago and was part of the squad that made their rugby XV’s debut in Singapore in 2018.
PV Sindhu, badminton player
medal, and Perhaps one of the most well-known sportswomen on the list, 23-year-old PV Sindhu is the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver one of the two Indian badminton players to ever win an Olympic medal. Hailing from Hyderabad, she was only 17 when she hit the international circuit by breaking into the Top 20 of the BWF World Ranking in September 2012. Since, she’s been serving her opponents with a volley of winning shots, and has picked up the Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and an Arjuna Award along the way