By Subhro Majumder
This year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo will undoubtedly be remembered for the unusual conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic – the year-long delay, the disrupted training regimes, the missing audience. However, it should also be remembered for some of the remarkable displays of women’s autonomy. Women athletes have been making headlines for taking control of how they – and we – experience the event looked forward to by the entire world.
The women in Tokyo are participating in a significant shift in sports, one that celebrates not only women’s physical strength but also their political power and personal liberty – qualities that, in the past, have often been sharply limited for women almost everywhere, but particularly in the sports world. From strict regulations requiring feminine clothing – with an emphasis on modesty in the past and on skin-baring in the present – to restrictions on what events women were allowed to compete in, the scope of women’s sports has been shaped, historically and now, by the notion that they must be shielded and swayed.
In the Tokyo Olympics, more women than ever before are swimming, running, flipping, jumping, shooting and pedalling their way to glory. Of the approximately 11,500 athletes, roughly 49 per cent are women. But 120 years ago, there might as well have been a sign saying ‘No Girls Allowed’ painted on the entrance to the first modern Olympics, when 241 athletes, all men, from 14 countries gathered in Athens, Greece.
To well understand the difference between that world and the one in which we live now, let us have a look at some women who have been a source of inspiration for all sportspersons around the world, irrespective of their gender.
Latisha Chan, the Taiwanese tennis player is known for her triumphs in doubles competitions, having won a total of 33, including one in the 2017 US Open for women’s doubles, three mixed-couples in 2018 and 2019 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon Championships.
She set off to be the second Taiwanese world number one doubles player in 2017 when she reached a career-high ranking of 50. At this year’s Tokyo Games, she teamed up with her sister Angel Chan for women’s doubles in tennis.
At just 12 years of age, Hend Zaza from Syria became the youngest athlete to compete in the Tokyo Olympics and one of the youngest to ever quality in the history of the Games. The table tennis prodigy is the youngest Olympian in 52 years since 11-year-old Beatrice Hustiu, who competed in the 1986 Olympics for figure skating.
Zaza is also the first Syrian to compete in table tennis via qualifications instead of an invitation. She had a rank of 155 in the entire world when she won the women’s singles title at the Western Asia Olympic Qualification Tournament in Jordan. The tournament earned her a spot at the Games.
PV Sindhu has metamorphosised as one of the most beloved sportspersons in India. The badminton star became the first Indian woman to win two Olympics medals, with her latest one being a follow-up to the silver at the previous Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. In the third-place play-off, the 26-year-old defeated He Bingjiao of China 21-13, 21-15.
Sindhu’s Olympic display has ensured that she would be considered one of the greatest ever Indian sportspersons.
As per the words of the founder of the Olympic movement, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Games were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” with ‘female applause as reward.’ Implying that the reason for women not participating in the Games was self-explanatory, Coubertin said “as no women participated in the Ancient Games, there obviously was to be no place for them in the modern ones.”
Since then, we have come a long way. In an Olympic first, in 2012, every participating country sent at least one woman contestant to the Games in London. And the Tokyo Olympics is becoming a testimony of women’s autonomy. As a large segment of the event still awaits to be witnessed and as we edge closer to the one in Paris in 2024, the future beckons while making the Olympic flame look bright.
About the author
Subhro Majumder is a Content Writer who is a sports and technology enthusiast. His other varied interests often sway him into reading about history, politics and international relations.