We watch sport to escape our realities. An unending workweek, an unyielding superior, an achy shoulder after shadow bowling in the kitchen, tepid tea, climate change – everything from the apocalyptic to the mundane fades away when you sit in front of the television set, watching MS Dhoni walk out to rapturous applause for another toss in another IPL final.
We watch sports to feel something, everything, all at once. Joy, despair, expectation, acceptance – maybe ee sala … maybe someone will smash five sixes in the last over, maybe Thala will do his magic. We tell ourselves that the stakes are high. The actual high-stakes stuff of life is pushed aside.
But try as we might, some realities have a horrid habit of catching up with sport. Like on May 28.
It was just another Big Day in Indian sport. The IPL final had us caring way too much about the rain and Dhoni’s knee and is-he-really-going-to-retire. Only, forcing us to look away from the washout unfolding at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, was the colliding reality of the sportspersons in Delhi.
On that same day, India’s Olympic wrestlers were manhandled and detained by the police while on a months-long protest against sexual harassment by the head of their federation and member of Modi’s party, whom they demanded be arrested as per the law.
Even as one of the best IPL seasons finally had a fitting conclusion, the wrestlers threatened to throw their medals into the Ganga in despondency, because, they said, “Did we win those medals so that the system can treat us like this – drag us, malign us, and term us criminals?”
The contrast was jarring. The reality, uncomfortable.
On one hand, here was a theatre of dreams, playing host to a celebration of sport. The culmination of hard-fought journeys in cricket, the spark for many others just starting theirs around the country. Just a few weeks ago, their female colleagues had been platformed at the Women’s Premier League, showing young girls that there was a career in sport, that special things were possible, that it was OK to dream and dare and do.
And then, tearing all that down, as if to mock those same girls and crush those same dreams, were the images of the police crackdown against the young female wrestlers and the accused at the country’s seat of governance.
Driving home this contrast, Sakshee Malikkh, bronze medallist in the 2016 Olympics and one of those accusing the official, tweeted: “Congratulations MS Dhoni ji and CSK. We are happy that at least some sportspersons are getting respect and love they deserve. For us, the fight for justice is still on.”
She added a smiley face, but few others would be smiling. Yes, sport is wonderful. But also, why would any woman want to take it up if this is what you get?
All the recent wins for women’s sport, and there have been plenty, suddenly seem hollow when athletes can’t be assured of basic safety, justice and respect.
When we encourage a girl to take up sport, and her parents to support her choice, we ask them to forget certain realities. Of how unsafe academies and camps and tournaments, and even the bus to cricket coaching at six in the morning, can be. But when they see that even an Olympics medal is no defence against this, why would they continue to ignore that justified fear?
When we encourage a girl to take up sport, and her parents to support her choice, we make an unstated commitment to stand by them against social opposition, unfriendly infrastructure and an antagonistic system. But, when the country’s biggest sport and most of its biggest sportspersons prove to be fair-weather supporters of their colleagues, surely a young female cricketer and her worried parents will wonder whether the community will stand up for them when needed.
“It’s not like we don’t have big athletes in our country,” Vinesh Phogat, Commonwealth and Asian Games medallist, and one of the leaders of the protest, was quoted as saying in the Indian Express. “There are cricketers … During the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, they showed their support. Don’t we deserve even that much?
“You do come forward to congratulate us when we win something. Even the cricketers tweet when that happens. What has happened now? Are you so afraid of the system?”
Since then, a handful of cricketers have spoken up on social media. The 1983 World Cup-winning team put out a statement of support, before Roger Binny, the BCCI president, distanced himself from it.
“I believe that sports should not be mixed with politics,” he said, in the refuge of every sports watcher who wants to ignore colliding realities for a little longer.
Forget for a moment that the central character in this sorry saga is a politician; and that several in the top echelons of sports bodies in the country are politicians or, as with the current BCCI, from political families.
But even outside that technicality, for many people, especially women, the very act of taking up a sport is political. And playing sport as a woman is a constant navigation of the uneven balance of power.
And it is perhaps in that reality that we make our peace with the contradictions of sports.
When we aren’t using sports as an escape, we are attracted to it because it is almost always a story of gumption. We watch sports because we admire the strength – of body, mind and character – of our sportspersons.
So maybe when we see sportswomen standing firm against a powerful man they accuse of sexual harassment, and a system that demands their silence and servility, it is exactly what tomorrow’s dreamers need to see. They see not an image that sparks fear, but one of hope, more inspiring than the big lights of any stadium.
We watch sport to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. To lose ourselves – and thus find ourselves – in the collective; we wear tribalism with pride, we cheer the hardest for our own, we jeer the loudest against the other. When it comes to the safety of women, let our tribalism not be with the silence.
We watch sport to feel. So let us feel rage at what our sportswomen have to fight to play a sport that they – and we – love. We owe it to ourselves, to sport, and primarily the women fighting the good fight, in this generation and the next, to add our voices to theirs.