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'Mindsets change, but here a girl should get married soon'
What kind of exploitation have you seen over your long career? How did you and your colleagues cope with it?
I have seen swimmers being exploited by the officials for selection for international meets. On two separate occasions, my sister Reshma was left out of the Indian swimming team two or three days before competitions such as Asian Games. When we questioned them, the federation replied that other families should also get a chance and since I was already on the team one member was more than enough.
Reshma's timings and performance clearly made no difference to anyone on the selection committees. As far as coping, it comes down to self-preservation. We were told on many occasions by the then national coach KV Sharma that if we went to the press about irregularities we could forget about our careers.
Is there a stereotyped way in which people in India view women swimmers?
Swimmers spend long hours in the pool and tan a lot. I have had even relatives tell me that I would never get married since no one in this country likes dark skinned girls. I never paid heed to their comments and I am now happily married! Even now, my students are concerned over tanning, but I try to dispel the notion that there is a stigma attached to being dark.
As someone who comes from a middle class family, how difficult was it to convince your folks to let you be a swimmer?
My parents supported me hundred per cent - both emotionally and financially. They never pressurised me to come first in class or to take up a regular career such as engineering or medicine. Parents can make all the difference to the career of a sportswoman. Without emotional support, life would have been very difficult for me.
Do you think in India, men have it easier than women?
Actually, there is more pressure on men as after a certain age they are expected to put their sporting careers on a backburner and start earning for the family. In most Olympic sports, there is no prize money or endorsements. Women too are expected to get married and have a family once they are in their early twenties, although I think that attitude is slowly beginning to change. For instance, Mary Kom is a mother and a boxing champion.
Swimming is not like cricket where even a state level player can make a decent living. Was there ever a doubt that you would be proved wrong if you didn't succeed?
We are all in it for the love of the sport and not for money. The fact that we have Abhinav Bindra, who is an Olympic gold medallist, not even ranking in the top 10 earners in terms of sport clearly goes to show that even an Olympic medal does not guarantee endorsement deals as it would outside India.
Does the mindset of family, town, men etc change when a woman starts earning for the family?
Yes, the mindset changes, but the expectations of most middle class families is still that a girl should get married even if she is financially independent.
How did you as a woman adjust to these male-dominated mindsets. Are sportswomen labeled different from 'regular' girls in Indian society?
Most swimmers at least have married outside the sport and most often their husbands have no relation to any sport. These days women with international and national awards and medals actually find it easier to find alliances.
Which has been the most extreme story of exploitation that you have heard all these years?
The hockey scandal has been the worst so far as it encompasses an entire team (juniors and seniors) and it was over a long period of time. I think background checks into all coaches should be done during their certification especially for those coaching women. This is a standard norm in all countries. I know this through my time spent swimming in Australia. Even to be a junior coach, background checks are mandatory.
Would you agree that women sportswomen are liable to be used as pawns by devious administrators and officialdom who have an axe to grind with the other party?
Yes. Even though there has never been any major incident in my case, I can guarantee that every single sportsperson has been the subject of discrimination and exploitation by federations and officials.
Why do you think women do not come out more often in the open with such charges? Is it more the fear of society?
Women do fear society when it comes to things such as sexual exploitation. However, when there is any other kind of exploitation with regards to selection etc then the reason sportspeople keep silent is purely because of their career. The day I stopped swimming was the day I could be vocal about what truly goes on in sport.
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