For a country that is too often in the news for the daily violence and social atrocities encountered by its women, a string of top class performances by India’s female athletes at the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast once again shows that they are second to none. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, India owed both its medals to women: Wrestler Sakshi Malik, whose bronze in wrestling opened India’s account at the Games, and shuttler PV Sindhu, who settled for silver after losing a nail-biting women’s singles final.

Gold Rush

At Gold Coast too, their march continues with women athletes accounting for almost half of the total medals won by India so far -- 20 out of 42 (one of the remaining being the gold in mixed team badminton) -- with a handful of events still on the line. After the Manipur duo of Mirabai Chanu and Sanjita Chanu kicked off India’s gold rush with back-to-back medals in weightlifting, the women sportspersons have churned out one after another memorable performances to swell India’s medal tally.

No wonder India has already bettered its 15-gold haul achieved at the Glasgow CWG in 2014. Of the 17 gold medals won by India so far this time, the women brigade has clinched as many as eight -- Manu Bhaker, Heena Sidhu, Tejaswini Sawant, Shreyasi Singh (shooting), Mirabai Chanu, Sanjita Chanu, Punam Yadav (weightlifting) and women’s team TT. The silver numbers are even better with the eves bagging eight out of the 11 medals won so far -- Seema Punia (athletics), Heena Sidhu, Mehuli Ghosh, Anjum Moudgil, Tejaswini Sawant (shooting), Babita Kumai, Pooja Dhanda (wrestling) and Manika Batra/Mouma Das (women’s doubles TT).

Steady Rise

The rise of India’s women athletes at the international level has been slow, but steady. While the growth has picked up speed over the past decade, there was a time, not too long ago, when their success were mostly restricted to national or continental levels. When Karnam Malleswari won the bronze in weightlifting at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, she became the first Indian woman to win a Olympic medal. However, it took 12 more years for that group to grow -- when Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom clinched bronze at the 2012 London Games. Since then the graph has only improved with Sakshi and Sindhu being the lone medal winners at the last Olympics. The turning point, without a doubt, was the 2010 CWG that India hosted. From 13 medals bagged by the women at the 2006 Melbourne CWG, the tally swelled to 36 at the Delhi Games four years later. Since 2010, Indian women have won 276 medal across Asian and World Championships, Commonwealth and Asian Games. Though there still remains a considerable gap between the Asian/Commonwealth and the world level, which India needs to conquer.

Rising Stars

Among the medal winners at CWG, many were established names who had tasted success at this level before. The likes of Heena Sidhu, Tejaswini Sawant, Mirabai Chanu, Sanjita Chanu or the women paddlers are all a proven lot and everyone expected them to do well. What’s heartening is the rise of the youngsters, who displayed no signs of getting intimidated while brushing shoulders with the senior pros.

16-year-old shooter Manu Bhaker was in a league of her own as she shattered two records en route the gold medal in 10m air pistol, adding to the glowing list of achievements in her relatively nascent career. After breaking the qualification record with ease, the markswoman from Jhajjar shot a CWG finals record of 240.9 to finish well ahead of her senior teammate Heena Sidhu, who had to settle for silver. In the end, Bhaker finished a 6.9 points ahead of Sidhu. Bhaker was the overwhelming favourite to win the event after having bagged multiple gold medals at the 2018 ISSF World Cup in Mexico and the subsequent Junior World Cup in Sydney. Shooting happened to Bhaker by chance after a brush with contact sports and for someone who took to the sport just a little over two years ago, winning with such consistency would easily qualify as some achievement. She stole the limelight at the last National Championships in Kerala, where she won nine gold medals and broke the national record, held by Sidhu. This was after she tasted maiden success -- a silver at the 2017 Asian Championships.

Though she had to stay content with the silver after losing a thrilling final, 17-year-old shooter Mehuli Ghosh is another youngster who is drawing a lot of attention for her ice-cold temperament and steely resolve. Mehuli settled for the silver after forcing a shoot-off in the women’s 10m air rifle event with a perfect final shot of 10.9, while her compatriot and senior Apurvi Chandela secured the bronze. The final witnessed an exciting climax as Mehuli ensured a shoot-off with Singapore’s Martina Lindsay Veloso, the eventual gold medallist. Both Veloso and Ghosh shot a Games record of 247.2 before the Singaporean had the last laugh with a 10.3 in the shoot-off as her Indian rival managed 9.9. The young shooter from Bengal first hogged limelight in December 2017 after becoming the Asian Champion in Japan. Her brilliant score of 420.1 also ensured her a quota place for this year’s Youth Olympics. In March this year, she became one of the youngest Indians ever to win two Word Cup medals at the ISSF World Cup in Mexico. She also created a junior world record at the event.

The improved performance of Indian women athletes at the Commonwealth Games goes on to show that they now stand a better chance to crown glory at the international level. They have already made inroads at the World Championships, and should now set their eyes firmly on the coming Olympics, to be held in Tokyo in 2020.

Aritra Mukhopadhyay