The Olympics drew to a close on August 8, and this year the world witnessed a large number of female athletes representing their respective nations.
In fact, Canada’s exemplary success at the Olympics this year was led by its women athletes. South Asian women shined throughout the games across various sports, and from the Indian Continent, 3 out of 7 medals were won by female athletes.
However, there is a pattern within South Asian female athletes that needs to be discussed. Despite being victorious, the number of South Asian women in sports at high levels remains strikingly low.
Natasha Raheel, a sports journalist says “the total number of South Asian women participating in the Tokyo Olympics is just 75. More than two-thirds of them – 56 to be precise – are from India. Pakistan, whose representation at the Olympics this year has been especially paltry with just 10 participating athletes, could only send three women. The South Asian representation as a whole comes down to 166 athletes out of 11,090 in all the sports altogether.”
This raises further questions as to why the numbers are so low.
“Sports, even today, remains predominantly a male domain. Success of women in high performance sport, especially South Asian women, do not reflect the ground level reality. A lot needs to be done: from changing the mindset of sports administrators to making sportx welcoming, safe and inclusive for young girls as well as women.” says Raheel.
An interesting thing to note here is also the class divide and representation issues within South Asian women athletes. Most of the athletes who represent us at the Olympics or on an international level, come from extremely humble backgrounds and remote villages. Some (rarely) come from wealthy families that can afford to spend money on individual training.
“For most of the sportspersons playing and winning in the Olympics - it means water, electricity and infrastructure coming to their villages finally..”, read a tweet from Indian Comedian Atul Khatri.
The middle class is largely missing in action, and would rather push their children towards becoming a doctor or an engineer. This can sometimes limit the horizons for our young women.
“The urban Indians want their kids to become engineers or docs or go overseas. I saw several memes on social media on this! Funny as it was, it is also a fact. Probably there are more international schools in India than any other place. And surprisingly, these are places which have infrastructure in some form. However, sports, music and singing are hobbies for a majority of students.”, says Kumar from TOI.
All of this puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of families and the entire community to encourage South Asian girls to take up sports on a professional level.
5X Press reached out to Baneet Bains, a young star South Asian athlete with big accomplishments, and talked to her about her journey, and what she experienced being a South Asian woman in sports.
Bains excels in middle distance running, a sport not very familiar or popular within the South Asian community. She is a Division 1 athlete at the University of San Francisco.
“Representation in the sport of distance running has always been a very big issue and the lack of representation alone is a massive barrier for any person of colour who wishes to be involved in the sport of distance running,” said Bains in an interview with 5X Press.
“Many times in high school and even in the NCAA, I toe the line, look around and notice that I am the only South Asian woman there. That is why I feel it is so important for there to be more representation of South Asian women and women of colour in the sport of distance running.”
For Bains, her biggest strength has been her family, particularly her father and her older sister Jasleen, who encouraged her to keep going, and never give up.
“As a kid I was always very energetic and loved running but didn’t run competitively. At a young age I was introduced to soccer because of my family’s passion for the sport,” she said.
“In elementary school I was involved in a program that the whole school participated in called running club. By participating in a running club I realized that I had a love for running. After I joined my first track club in grade 8 my family, specifically my dad, was very supportive and remained involved with how running was going.”
She recalls her first race, which showed her the importance of perseverance.
“I still remember my very first official track race when I was 13, and I came 2nd last, I was so disappointed and sad. However, my sister and dad who came with me cheered me up and encouraged me to not quit but to try harder. So I continued to track and by grade 10 my hard work was finally paying off and I was leading races,” said Bains.
But not every South Asian woman athlete is as fortunate as her, in terms of support from their families.
“When I was in high school I also played basketball and volleyball, and when going to games I noticed that my dad was one of the few parents who would actively come and watch each and every game,” she said.
“There were very few times in high school that my dad missed games. I believe that there needs to be more community support for women to participate in a variety of sports,” said Bains
An athlete of tremendous potential and calibre, Bains is in her 3rd year at the University of San Francisco studying communication and public relations. She plans on pursuing a career in public relations pertaining to the sports industry, because she believes that sports have immensely shaped her life.
She encourages young South Asian women to pursue sports and says that she has received a lot of support from her community.
“I firmly believe that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to community support for girls. However, I feel that there is still much needed. Our community should continue to encourage girls to be involved in sports because it is through the community’s support in advocating for more women in sport we can truly move towards the right direction,” Bains added.
“Personally, I have been able to experience such positive words from my community that it pushes me towards having more of a drive for my sport. When I am running, I know that I am not only running for myself but also for my community and to represent South Asian women in the field of distance running. That is why community support and encouragement is so influential in pushing girls towards sports.”
As a note of encouragement to young South Asian women wanting to take sports seriously, she offered some words of advice.
“It is not easy at times and to carry your passion for the sport along with you the entire way. It is your passion for sports that will drive you to your next levels,” she said.
“Along with your passion, your family's support, and a positive support circle is very important. Personally, I am extremely thankful for all my family, coaches, teammates, and friends who have supported me along my journey. “
Baneet is one of the few examples of women from our community who are encouraged to go ahead with sports. But she is also a living, breathing proof of what women in our community can accomplish if they have our support.
About the author: Roshni is a self-proclaimed Comedy Queen who specializes in laughing at her own jokes. Her hobbies include making people smile, watching movies and analysing them, reading books, practicing yoga (occasionally), hogging on well-cooked biryani and scrolling through dog videos and memes on Instagram. Her love for writing stems from her love for art in general, which is fuelled by her background in theatre. Catch on her instagram at @roshni_rakshit daily, where she regularly shares her experience with movies and occasionally offends people with her political sense of humour.