Beijing, 2008 — I remember sitting in the living room of our apartment with my dad watching the Summer Olympics. The TV shone bright in the dark room. Our eyes were glued to the screen, watching the intense swimming races and diving competitions. But I was especially excited for the gymnasts to compete. Watching the athletes flip, twist and turn several feet into the air left five-year-old me in utter awe and struck a chord somewhere deep within me.
In 2020, the BBC surveyed the Indian public, asking respondents if women were “as qualified as men in sport.” To my surprise, a large number of people said yes. Despite this response, 42% also confessed that, by the same token, women’s sport was less entertaining to watch. When I read this, I thought, “There we go, there’s the caveat.” Despite the overwhelming success of women in sport, especially South Asian women, there remains an underlying gap. South Asian women are portrayed in the media as victims of forced marriage, domestic violence, etc. Stories about successful South Asian female athletes, on the other hand, are limited. The stark reality is that a woman could be at her peak performance and ability yet still have to fight to be recognized within the media. Why is it that despite the success of athletes like Mithali Raj, captain of the national women’s Indian cricket team, and the youngest woman ever to score 100 on her debut, the media disproportionately portrays stories of her male counterparts? The nature and structure of sport and movement culture have been created for the heterosexual male. Engage in a thought experiment with me. Name a sport that might be difficult for a woman to compete in. Once you list that, think of sports that are difficult for a man. When participants of the BBC survey were asked to pick sports that could be unsuitable for a woman, one third of them mentioned high impact, contact sports: wrestling, boxing, weightlifting and kabaddi (a combative sport originating in India). What societal subtleties allow these normative beliefs to remain present despite the successes of South Asian female athletes?
In short, the answer comes down to the lack of South Asian representation in elite sport. Reflecting upon my own experience, as a 5-year old watching the Beijing Olympics, I had internalized the experience of the gymnasts I watched. I didn’t just want to do the same beam or floor routines as them, I wanted to be them. I wanted to achieve that caliber. My parents enrolled me into gymnastics classes at our local gym when I was around 3 years old. I lived in a small town about 2 hours away from Toronto, Ontario where there was only one gym, and I fell in love with the sport. My classes were a couple evenings a week, and I remember looking forward to them all day. That being said, I don’t remember seeing another person that looked like me in that gym, either in my classes or among the coaching staff. There I was, a short, brown girl in a predominantly white environment, and I felt like an imposter. I didn’t realize it then, but as much as I loved gymnastics, not having a role model that shared my background prevented me from embodying the gymnast identity. Instead, it became just a hobby.
When it comes to engaging in sport as a hobby or a career, South Asian girls and women are likely to receive critical judgment from the public, relatives, and family, as a result of the highly community based, collective nature of the South Asian community. A common example of such criticism is that a woman with a robust, athletic appearance will have fewer marriage prospects. Gender norms have historically reinforced the notion that femininity is associated with grace and delicacy. When a female athlete steps out of that box, she sends ripples through the patriarchal societal fabric. The role of a woman in the South Asian community, whether on the sub-continent or abroad is to take care of her domestic duties and fulfill her role as a mother, daughter, and wife. Only then, may she think about her personal aspirations and goals. This continual systemic oppression creates barriers which limit South Asian women’s participation in sport. These barriers range from a lack of resources and proper training equipment to poor coaching and low support at the grass-roots levels of sport. They explain the minimal representation of South Asian women in sport and sport media. The limited representation of South Asian women makes young girls less likely to internalize that athlete identity and see themselves at the elite levels of sport.
One afternoon, after I had already been enrolled in gymnastics classes for 6 years, my mom and I were called into the administrative office of the gym. The lead coach told us that I’d excelled in all of the initial classes and passed all the levels. I was ready for the next step of training and competing. My imagination took me back to Beijing, 2008. Those summer nights had sown the hope that I’d be competing one day with my own team. But instead, my gymnastics career ended that day in the coach’s office. Training and competing required resources like time and money, which as a first generation immigrant family, we did not have in abundance. Gymnastics was simply not a priority. I began to focus more on excelling in school. Participating in sports could always be a hobby. But I just can’t help thinking, what if? What if it had been more? As I drown in “what if’s” and “could haves,” it’s gratitude that pulls me out. My experience has pushed me to reconsider how sport and physical activity now fits into my life. As South Asian women, we all should partake in sport, whether we’re elite athletes, casual runners or once-a-month outdoor walkers. With or without gymnastics, I am a South Asian girl, and I am an athlete.
This article was brought to you by the Blog Team at Project Stree. Project Stree is a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products.