Haryana’s male to female sex ratio of 1,000 to 834 ranks as one of the lowest in India. Female foeticide is a major problem in the state, with the ‘girl child’ still considered a burden on several households in the rural landscape. However, one particular village in the north-western state is setting a brilliant example in progressive thinking, using the medium of sports.
Balali, a small village located 150 km away from Gurgaon, now boasts of two female Rio-bound Olympic wrestlers from the same family.
The Phogat sisters have become a symbol of women’s empowerment in the state. During a time when declining education rate and an increase in crime against women are a stark reality, the success of these siblings goes a long way in demolishing existing gender barriers.
Last week, Vinesh Phogat became the first Indian woman to book a Rio Olympic wrestling slot. The achievement was even more poignant considering she was disqualified from the first qualifier for being overweight.
Return from ‘overweight’ Rio Olympic qulifier disqualification
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Vinesh said, “Whatever happened in Mongolia was highly unfortunate. I could not cut my weight as quickly as I would have liked. I was 400 grams overweight and thus couldn’t take part in the competition. I was really disappointed about that.”
She added, “I believe the reason for not making weight was that I took a bit of time to acclimatise to the food and weather. However, Turkey was a whole different experience.”
Wrestling like a woman possessed, Vinesh won all her bouts in the 48 kg Freestyle event via technical knockouts. A convincing 6-0 victory against higher ranked Iwona Matkowska of Poland highlighted her claim for a medal in Rio.
Having dreamed of Olympic qualification since she was a child, Vinesh broke down into tears after winning the final. She said, “Being at the Olympics, doing well for the country on the biggest stage is something that has always been my goal right from the time I started wrestling. Qualifying for the Rio Olympics is a small step. The real work starts now. Preparations for the Olympics are completely different. You have to focus as much on mental strength as you do on your physical conditioning. At the Olympics, if you are strong mentally, you will be able to handle the pressure.”
Vinesh’s elder sister Babita Kumari also qualified for Rio in the 53 kg Freestyle category, after her opponent Sumiya Erdenechimeg of Mongolia was banned for doping.
A competitive bond of sisterhood
The six sisters – Geeta, Babita, Ritu, Vinesh, Priyanka and Sangita – are all accomplished wrestlers, with international tournaments under their belt. The credit for their introduction to a thoroughly male dominated sport goes to their father and Coach Mahavir Phogat.
Vinesh and Priyanka were daughters of Mahavir’s slain brother. After his death, he adopted the two and guided them into competitive wrestling.
Mahavir fought several societal problems, including being disowned by his community, to promote women’s sport in his village. He said, “In our village, we don’t see a difference between male and female. I am of the opinion that whatever a man can do, a girl can do as well. That is the only way we can have a progressive society.
A forward thinking ideology in a relatively repressive society bore fruit when the eldest sister Geeta won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Babita also won gold at the 2014 edition. This would kick-start a glorious run for the sisters, with all of them representing India across different weight categories.
Vinesh herself began her international journey with a bronze at the Asian Wrestling Championship. At just 19 years of age, she was one of the early climbers in the family. A subsequent gold medal at the 2014 CWG in Glasgow, in her parent 48 kg category, announced her arrival.
When were growing our village elders thought it was immoral of women to wrestle: Vinesh
Vinesh added, “When we were growing up, village elders obviously said that we were doing something wrong, and that girls shouldn’t be outside running around. I was lucky that my first coach was my uncle (Mahavir Phogat). By the time I started, Geeta and Babita, my elder sisters (cousins) were already wrestling, and word of how good they were had already started spreading. That helped me to a certain extent. My uncle always supported me and kept me motivated.”
“He is quite a hard taskmaster but he only has good intentions at heart. He pushed me to do well, to keep improving myself and he told me that if I gave wrestling my all, societal pressures would take care of themselves.”
In fact, Mahavir admitted that the Phogat family men were unable to complete his strict training regime. However, the sisters not only internalised it, they also brought in several additional nuances, which they learned through international competition.
Sisterhood is a core component of Vinesh’s unsung success. The JSW Sports supported athlete spoke about her sisters, “Their presence has been a huge source of motivation and inspiration for me. I have always looked up to them. We have trained together for a long time and I am always talking to them, trying to pick up bits and pieces that will help me. Both have been immensely supportive of me and my wrestling. I spoke to Geeta before I took the mat at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.”
She added, “We didn’t discuss specifics but just spoke about how I needed to back myself and the long hours of training I put in. I won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and that was my first senior gold medal. Geeta and Babita’s role has been very important and I am very happy that Babita has also made the cut for Rio.”
The sisters have a strict training regime till Rio. JSW have been supporting Vinesh’s meteoric rise over the last three years, and they have taken care of the wrestling-related finances – including professional training gear and protein supplements.
The Phogat sisters are now treated as heroes back in their village, and the community is embracing women’s wrestling as a badge of honour, instead of a shameful deed. Vinesh added, “Now that I go back to the village, we are treated like heroes. Some even say that they want their daughter to become like me. So it’s acting as a motive for the nearby villages to also take it up.”
With the Rio Olympics less than three months away, three female wrestlers have qualified for the Games from Haryana. In a state which still boasts of the highest foeticide rate, the Phogat sisters, along with their visionary father, are on the verge of writing a new page in Haryana’s and India’s sporting folklore.