IN THE NEWS
The much-harried tennis star’s decision to skip tournaments in India has revealed the downside of being a female achiever from a minority community, writes Vaibhav Sharma
AFTER a controversy in 2005 regarding her on-court attire, Sania Mirza had worn a T-shirt with a cheeky slogan, "Well behaved women rarely make history".
The statement can easily be misunderstood to be a na`EFve and immature way of replying to religious fanatics and moral brigades who have kept her occupied even off the court. But in truth, what Sania had implied through that little dig at fanaticism was that it was tough being a celebrity in India, tougher being a minority community celebrity and the toughest part of it was to be a female celebrity.
Irrespective of their religious allegiance, some men still find it extremely hard to come to terms with the success of women in sports, a predominately male-dominated bastion in India.
Sania’s decision to pull out of the 2008 Bangalore Open and her announcement about staying away from tournaments held in India have left not just tennis lovers but the entire sporting fraternity in a tizzy. One controversy after the other finally took its toll on Sania and she decided that she didn’t wish to feed any more fuel to the fire, at least domestically.
While there have been reactions from several Indian players, no one except Mahesh Bhupathi has spoken out in support of an already isolated Sania. Leander Paes has hit out at her while saying, "Look at every celebrity, who does not have controversies? We all have adversities. Every celebrity has adversities in their lives. It’s how dignified and honest you are. It’s about how you project yourself and how you handle them," adding that no individual was greater than the game.
Without undermining the knowledge Leander has about the game and the way one should conduct oneself as a celebrity of national stature, he probably fails to understand that while he can play in a sleeveless and the shortest of shorts, there are people who want Sania to play in tunics and head scarves.
Others like former Davis Cup captain Akhtar Ali and the legendary Vijay Amritraj have expressed their "surprise" and "sympathy". What strikes you through all these reactions is that not even one of these tennis greats have appealed to Sania to rethink her decision; just an odd warning of the consequences in a lukewarm fashion. Is it a case of sheer indifference or do they actually understand that the going had gotten too tough for Asia’s number one women’s player?
Sania had said, "Every time I have played in India, there has been some kind of problem and so at this moment, I have been advised by my manager not to play."
Her decision comes close on the heels of her revelation that she had almost quit the game after the controversy regarding the Tricolour during the Hopman Cup in Australia last month. She had been pictured sitting with her feet resting on a table next to the National Flag.
Sania had denied any intentional disrespect to the flag, saying that her pose in the photograph was purely accidental, but a complaint was filed with a Bhopal court under the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act.
Sania is no stranger to controversy and has seen more than enough of them throughout her career so far. From the fatwa issued against her "indecent" dressing on court by a Hyderabad-based Muslim cleric, to her statements on pre-marital sex, the issue of playing with Israeli player Shahar Peer, or the matter of shooting a commercial in the Mecca Masjid at Hyderabad, the 21-year-old has seen many controversies cropping up and being blown out of proportions, even though none of these had anything to do with her on-court performance.
The beginning of the year saw Sania give Venus Williams a tough fight at the Australian Open, and also reach the final of the mixed doubles event. Ideally, one would have expected the going to get better, but Sania’s decision has brought to light the injustice being meted out to her not just by the fundamentalists, but also the silent spectators who have never raised a voice of dissent over her continuous harassment.
Being a public figure definitely has its downside, and everyone has to learn to live with it. But the problem is that when it comes to Sania, the focus is not about wearing your heart on your sleeve when you play for the country, but rather if there is a sleeve at all. The country needs to take note of the fact that she has, without saying much, exposed the apathy of the entire system towards an extremely successful and promising talent.
What needs to be taken
care of is that she changes her mind and that too soon, for she is not
just a role model for girls aspiring to become professional tennis
players, but for every girl in the country who dreams to make it big.
And the innuendo message coming out from the current standoff is that if
a girl wishes to "dream" about sports in this country, she
better keep her eyes "wide open".
INDIAN boxing seems to be in a resurgent mode with Akhil Kumar becoming the second pugilist to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, which would be his second successive Olympics. Featherweight boxer Anthresh Lalit Lakra had attained the qualifying mark when he reached the quarterfinal of the World Championship at Chicago in November last year.
Money speaks the universal language of success as monetary incentives were the motivating factors in Akhil clinching the gold and an Olympic berth in the Asian qualifying event at Bangkok, with the "best boxer" title to boot. The 27-year-old Commonwealth Games gold medallist from Bhiwani braved a wrist injury, which was yet to fully heal, as he punched his way past Olympic silver medallist Worapoj Pitchkoom to glory.
Quick on his feet, Akhil packs quite a punch too. "I have the confidence, the speed and power, but my task would be complete only if I win an Olympic medal," Akhil said on his arrival in New Delhi.
He said it was the systematic training and guidance by coaches Gurbax Singh Sandhu and Cuban B.I. Fernandez which helped him polish his skills and triumph at the top level.
Akhil is a recipient of a monthly scholarship of around Rs 50,000 from the International Boxing Federation and another Rs 5,000 or so per month from the Mittal Trust for being a medal prospect for the Beijing Olympics. It was, thus, in his own interest to push himself to the limit and achieve success.
Otherwise, he stood to lose the scholarship amount. With his financial requirements having taken care of, the bantamweight (54 kg) boxer could fully concentrate on his sport, and the results are now all too evident.
"Akhil is a boxer with determination, skill, strength and the drive to achieve something. I have 70 per cent hope on him to win a medal in the Olympics," said former national coach and Dronacharya awardee Om Prakash Bhardwaj. If Akhil strikes it big in Beijing, he would be the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal.
G. Manoharan, also a bantamweight boxer, came very close to bagging a medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, had he not been disqualified. Manoharan, having won the first two rounds, was in devastating form in the quarterfinal as well, but he failed to heed the referee’s signal to stop the bout before he floored his opponent with a knockout punch. A semifinal round would have at least fetched him a bronze.
Manoj Pingle was the second Indian boxer who raised hopes of a medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After winning the first two rounds in a convincing fashion, Pingle lost in the quarterfinal, to the disappointment of the large Indian boxing fraternity.
The Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) is expecting at least three more Olympic berths in the third and final qualifying event in Kazakhstan. All gold medal winners in the Super Cup Championship, to be held in Akola (Maharashtra) on February 12-13, will be fielded for the qualifying event from March 15, in which boxers from 21 nations will compete for Olympic slots in several weight categories.
IABF secretary Muralidharan Raja said hopes were pinned on Vijender (75 kg), Amandeep (48 kg) and Jitender (51 kg) to make the Olympic cut. If this sport is looking up in the country, it’s largely due to the efforts of the government. Boxing camps in all age groups, including women, juniors and sub-juniors, are held round the year, and the pugilists are given foreign exposure periodically.
The government has spent crores on the development of boxing in the country, and as a result, a strong base has been created to shape talent. True, the IABF, under the stewardship of Abhay Singh Chautala, with support from vice-president Bhupinder Singh and director-general of Police R.S. Dalal, has also ensured that the government support is not frittered away by meaningfully utilising the resources, and creating a virtual boxing hub in Haryana.
There is a boxing club in virtually every district of Haryana in which 25 to 30 boys/girls practise. Akhil, who hails from Bhiwani, is also a product of such a boxing culture as barring Lakra, most of the Olympic hopefuls are from Haryana.
"If other states emulate the example of Haryana, not only boxing but other sports will also flourish," observed Bhardwaj, who is also a national junior talent spotter.
Bhardwaj, waxing eloquent at the proliferation of boxing clubs in Haryana, noted that in the not-too-distant future, "Haryana will emerge as the second Cuba (the Latin American country is famous for its boxing talent, with the dashing, multiple Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson being their famous mascot)".
HITTING a hole-in-one is hard enough. Now consider that Leo Fiyalko is 92 years old and blind.
"I was just trying to put the ball on the green," he said.
Fiyalko, who has macular degeneration and has been playing golf since he moved to St Petersburg from Warren, Ohio, in the 1950s, scored the ace with a 5-iron on the 110-yard fifth hole at the Cove Cay Country Club in Clearwater (Florida) recently.
Fiyalko tees off every Thursday with a group of golfers ranging in age from 70 to more than 90. He used to have a seven-handicap, but needs help lining up shots and finding golf balls because he has peripheral vision only in his right eye. According to his daughter Sandra Taylor, he has to sit sideways to watch TV.
Jean Gehring was in Fiyalko’s foursome and watched his swing on the hole-in-one. "I could tell it went on the green," Gehring said. "When we got up there I didn’t see it. I looked in the hole and there it was."
Gehring said Fiyalko was modest about the shot and had to be prodded to tell his wife about it after the round.
Fiyalko’s friends at the club presented him with a plaque to commemorate the feat. It bears a picture of the fifth hole and a line that reads: "Leo Fiyalko, hole-in-one, five iron, 110 yards."
As Sue Rogan, who has run the Twilighters Club for the past seven years, announced that she was presenting a plaque to Fiyalko, he buried his face in his hands and shook his head.
SHE has set her sights on securing an Olympic berth for India. Mamta Kharab, the captain of the women’s hockey team, knows that her girls need to play outstandingly to win the qualifier at Kazan, Russia, from April 19-27.
India have been pitted against USA, Netherlands Antilles, Russia, Belgium and Chinese Taipei. "I’m hopeful that we will make it to Beijing," Arjuna awardee Mamta said on the sidelines of the 55th Rakshak Senior National Women’s Hockey Championship in Jalandhar recently.
The Haryana girl shot into the limelight when she scored a golden goal against England in the final at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. She also struck the match-winner in the semifinal versus New Zealand.
"The Commonwealth victory gave a big fillip to women’s hockey in India. We won the gold after a long gap of 32 years," she said.
A product of the Sports Training Centre, SAI, Chandigarh, Mamta made her international debut in 1999 at the under-21 tournament in New Jersey, USA. For her outstanding performance at the Commonwealth Games, the Arjuna Award was conferred on her in 2003.
The forward, who was earlier working as a section officer in the Railways, was recently appointed as DSP in the Haryana Police. "I am thankful to the Haryana Chief Minister for recognising my achievements. He has also asked me to form a women’s police hockey team," she says.
At present, Mamta is working hard to remove the chinks in her game. "Though my attacking moves are good, I am focusing on increasing my speed and physical endurance," she said.
Talking about the impact of Chak De! India on women’s hockey, she says, "No doubt it made waves for a while, but the government is not looking at the ground reality. The game is suffering because our team hardly has no sponsors."
However, she hastens to add that recently a Mumbai-based company, City Limousine, has come forward to sponsor the team. "If things go well, women’s hockey will get a major boost," she hopes.
Mamta is pretty satisfied with her team’s form, but she thinks Indian players lag behind their Dutch and Australian rivals when it comes to physical endurance. "This is a key area where we need to improve if our team has to become one of the best in the world," she says, exuding optimism.