It may be tempting to put in comparative perspective Sakshi Malik’s bronze medal in women’s 58-kg freestyle wrestling at the Rio Olympics, and to caution against over-celebrating her feat. There is relief, no doubt, that with her gutsy manoeuvres in the closing minutes of the bout, she finally opened India’s account in Rio. Memories of medal-less Games for India are still raw, and it does not take much for the country to collapse into both self-criticism and open-ended rants against the System. Malik’s triumph on August 17 took the edge off any such chorus, but it would be missing the essence of her achievement if her bronze is taken to be only about getting an Indian athlete on the medals podium. Malik’s win must be celebrated for her particular life story; we must celebrate her as much as the bronze. Her story must remind us of the sites where aspiration resides, and the validation victories like hers bring to sport. She joins the ranks of the Phogat sisters as another icon for women wrestlers in this country. Theirs is a cinematic story of a rural Haryanvi patriarch’s repudiation of gender stereotypes, and systemic obstructions. Malik’s is the story of a young girl working through the system, of being drawn to wrestling after accompanying her grandfather to the akhara, of knowing that dedication would take her places, to tournaments whose names she didn’t know initially. Haryana has outdone the rest of the country in getting its sportspersons to the greatest competitions: Malik’s Rohtak-to-Rio journey must nudge the authorities to accept that it is the state’s responsibility to provide its young the opportunity to train and compete.
Malik’s journey also validates wrestling at a time when it is struggling to ensure its continuance as an Olympic sport. In 2013, the International Olympic Committee had actually initiated the process to discontinue it from the 2020 Games onwards. The IOC votes on considerations such as television ratings, popularity and anti-doping measures. But one of the things wrestling did in the wake of that scare was to increase the number of medals on offer to women at the Olympics. From the older breakdown of seven medals each for men in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, the number came down to six each; women now got to compete for six medals instead of the earlier four (women don’t compete in Greco-Roman at the Games). If anyone still thought that wrestling, with its ancient connect, should cease to be in the Olympics, Malik’s victory celebration must surely have melted them.