FIFA fever was on and I was glued to the TV set for the last few days trying to grapple with the team scores, goal kicks, midfielder passes and the match winning headers. I was trying to understand the tight ropes of a 90-minute game which connects and disconnects people for the countries the players represent. Suddenly my attention was diverted to an athletic event in Finland. Hima Das from India won a gold medal in the 400 meters race in the international athletic under 20 event this year.
Das is the first Indian beyond state, region, sex, caste, class, ethnic, religious identity to win a gold medal in an international event. She created a golden milestone for herself and all others in the country. One of her coaches in Dibrugarh Assam said Sasmita Duara, “She is God-gifted and she worked towards recognising her talent. She excelled in 100 meters event and had practiced that for the last so many years. If you notice the race she won, she played very strategically slow in the beginning and fast in the last 100 meters. That is because of her years of practice in 100 meters. She discovered her strength.”
Hima Das is a prodigy in Assam who could breakfree and made a name for herself. She was groomed well by her coaches Nipon Das and Nabajit Malakar. Her family stood by her and allowed her to fulfil her dreams. As Gymnastics coach Alisha Khan from Guwahati said, “Children have to get the support from their parents and Hima Das had that support from her parents. They trusted the coaches and allowed Hima to get advanced training in Guwahati which prepared her for the international events. But how many young talents are getting such support from their families is a huge concern for female athletes.”
Women in sports were not encouraged much in Assam but some women have come out as pathfinders with many challenges. As international athlete and Olympian Tayabun Nisha shares, “I think if you are good then world is good. (Apun Bhalei Jogot Bhal). I came out of my hometown in Sibsagar in 1974 to work and play from the Railways. I wanted to work on my game. I always say that athletics needs minimum investment and maximum fitness. I am very happy about Hima’s achievement.” It may have been a self-starting journey for Tayabun Nisha which opened up avenues for women in the yesteryears but in today’s times things are different.
“I have put my children in table tennis even though I am an athletics coach myself. Our state doesn’t have enough tracks and open space for international level training for the athletes at the district level. We are ready to coach but where are the players and the state support. The kind of benefits which are attached to other sports, athletics doesn’t have enough advantage. Hope things change in future with Hima’s achievement, lamented athletics coach Sasmita Duara from Dibrugarh.
Women have to fight many battles to step out of their homes and run on the tracks. People pass comments on their sports outfits, body structure, colour of the skin; linguistic abilities, caste and class identities and we think that there is no discrimination. While coaching gymnasts, coach Alisha Khan from Guwahati says, “Our girls wants to perform their best but sometimes they face discrimination. Even I faced resistance from my community for wearing the gymnastics dress during the performance. When my students say that they want to wear slacks along with the gymnastics dress I cannot say no. I have seen in foreign countries how young women perform confidently without any inhibition about their dress. I wish our country also had a liberal mindset. Mostly outsiders and audience comments on the players dress which is very discouraging.”
In a third world country, being a woman athlete is a tremendous achievement where one has to cut across hegemonic sports like cricket, football, badminton, table tennis and lawn tennis which get world limelight and maximum monetary benefits from all sectors. But the struggles for women are manifold whether in rural or urban context. Very recently another veteran National level javelin athlete Debojani Bora from Karbi Anglong was accused of being a witch and brutally assaulted by her own village women in Assam. As social activist Sheetal Sharma said, “Sometimes women in sports are targeted for being more successful. I am also concerned about the kind of sexual harassment which women in sports face when they go for their practice sessions and sports events. I wonder if internal complaints committees are formed and put in place for such bodies.”
Today Hima Das has broken the global south barriers which limit women from rural, vernacular, superstitious and repressive societies to excel at the international levels. She has shown the world her resilience and transition from being a footballer to become a world champion in a 400 meters athletics event. For a woman, I guess it is more important to be an individual achiever than become part of a group game like football. Hope Hima Das brings more sponsors, nutritionists, physiotherapists, synthetic tracks and enough support to make her and others like her to be Gold winners in many other international events. As of now Assam has got a world champion whose feat remains incredible.