The first ever Indian Olympic medal was won by Norman Pritchard in the Men’s 200m hurdles in the 1900 Paris Summer Games. A full 100 years later, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, an Indian woman finally won an Olympic medal – weightlifter Karnam Maheshwari took a bronze in the 69kg category. The first Indian female athlete to do so.
But perhaps the most telling statistic of this changing landscape is the medals column in the 2016 Rio Olympics. India won two medals – a silver and a bronze. Both were won by women – PV Sindhu (Badminton) and Sakshi Malik (Wrestling), with Dipa Karmakar coming painfully close and finishing fourth as a gymnast.
In fact, in the last decade alone, Olympics aside, Indian sports have enjoyed some of its most breathtaking moments through upcoming and star female athletes. The highest grossing Hindi film of all time – Dangal – is based on the Phogat sisters, who excelled at Wrestling in Haryana, unheard of in the region. Tides have turned. For the better.
Here is a list of five pathbreaking Indian women athletes – famous Indian sports personalities in their own right – who have broken barriers in a notoriously orthodox country this century. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most successful in their field even nationally, but they were the ones who rose and paved the way for the rest. They started the revolution, so that others could continue it in a stronger way.
5. DIPIKA PALLIKAL (SQUASH)
Squash isn’t quite a famous sport in India. But over the last decade, thanks to players like young Dipika Pallikal, Joshna Chinappa and Saurav Ghosal, it has come into the spotlight. This, for all means, is the golden generations for Indian squash stars. And there has been nobody as influential as Dipika Pallikal. The greatest sign of her success now is that cricketer Dinesh Karthik is known more commonly as Dipika’s husband instead of the other way around. Pallikal was 20 when she broke into the Women’s Singles’ top 10 back (ranked 10) in 2012. She is a two-time national champion and an Arjuna as well as Padma Shri awardee by the age of 25. She is a Commonwealth Gold medal winner (doubles). 2012 was a breakout year, where she reached the final of the Tournament of Champions and the semifinals of the Australian Open. Pallikal has won 11 titles, and continues to remain the face of Indian squash. The best part: she is only 25.
4. DEEPIKA KUMARI (ARCHERY)
The ultimate underdog story. A film is waiting to be made on this Ranchi girl. The daughter of a rickshaw driver, Kumari is the only Indian archer ever to be ranked no. 1 in the world. She, too, is an Arjuna and Padma Shri awardee, and won two golds at the Delhi Commonwealth Games back in 2010, as well as two silvers (Women’s team) in the World Championships in 2011 and 2015. She, too, though, has underperformed at the Olympics, but is only 23 and has a very promising career ahead of her. She was perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the Rio Olympics last year, finishing seventh in the team event, but has shown enough potential to be considered as a rare serious Indian contender for only the second individual Olympic gold medal ever after Abhinav Bindra.
3. SANIA MIRZA
The most successful Indian women’s tennis player of all time is an iconic figure. 10 years ago at this time, Sania Mirza was India’s biggest female athlete – and ranked within the top 30 in Women’s Singles. She had defeated top-10 players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Martina Hingis in 2007. The 2005 WTA Newcomer of the year reached the fourth round of the US Open and third round of the Australian Open and lost to fellow big-hitter Maria Sharapova. There was a time when Mirza’s forehand was one of the hardest in women’s tennis. She now has an Arjuna, Padma Shri, Khel Ratna and Padma Bhushan to show for her efforts – mostly because she is perhaps the most successful Indian female athlete of this century. It wasn’t her Singles’ career – which she ended due to injuries in 2013 – but her Doubles career that propelled her to the forefront of the World rankings. Her partnership with Martina Hingis will be remembered for the ages; she won the 2015 Wimbledon and US Open as well as the 2016 Australian Open with the Swiss Miss – reaching no. 1 in the world and forming one of the greatest women’s doubles pairs to have ever played the game. She has won 6 Grand Slams in total – 3 in Mixed Doubles, including two with Mahesh Bhupathi. Mirza was one of the earliest trendsetters and “star” symbols in Indian female sports – equally glamorous and talented. In fact, her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik hasn’t been as controversial as many expected it to be, given her superb exploits on the tennis court.
2. SAINA NEHWAL
World no. 2 P.V. Sindhu is currently taking the world by storm, but the path to Badminton glory had been paved more than half a decade ago by the fierce Saina Nehwal – who has had a lean few seasons because of recurring injuries. Nehwal became the face of Indian badminton and led a generation full of upcoming winners – doubles specialists Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa as well as Parupalli Kashyap and a few male players. She remains the only Indian badminton player to be ranked no. 1 in the world (in 2015), and single-handedly led the rest-of-the-world charge against the monopoly of Chinese players. Her battles with the unbeatable Wang Yihan and Wang Shixian became stuff of legends – familiarizing a generation of Indians with the possibility of competing and occasionally beating the best at their own game. Nehwal has won 20 career titles including 10 Super Series titles – and stayed at the summit of Badminton for almost a decade. She was no. 2 in 2009 but reached no. 1 six years later. She is also an Olympic bronze medalist, a Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and a silver and bronze medalist at the World Badminton Championships. 2017 has proved that her career is far from over, though, with her making a comeback to no. 12 in the world and finishing third in the World Championships where Sindhu went down bravely to Japanese star Okuhara. Nehwal is 27, and has a couple of years left to physically compete against a gamut of younger, agile players.
There is arguably nobody in the history of Indian sports to have influenced perceptions and risen from nothingness to become the most famous face of a country obsessed with male-dominated arenas. Manipuri legend Mary Kom has a hit movie to her name already, but the Olympic bronze-winning boxer is so much more than fame. The flyweight boxer was a first for an Indian in many accomplishments – not least being a five-time Amateur World Boxing Champion, two of those coming after she became a mother during a hiatus from the sport. Magnificent Mary is also an Asian Games gold medalist and now a member of the Rajya Sabha. She never turned pro, and became the first amateur boxer to win the Padma Bhushan. The best part: the 35-year-old wasn’t selected to represent India at the Rio Olympics last year, but she has not mentioned the word “retirement” even once. She continues to shine a light on a neglected sports for women in this country – just by existing.
Cricketer and Indian captain Mithali Raj, bowler Jhulan Goswami, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, sprinter P.T. Usha, shooter Heena Sidhu, wrestler Sakshi Malik, long jumper Anju Bobby George, discus throwers Seema and Krishna Punia.