Indian women who broke the glass ceiling in Olympic sports

In a country where sports is often dominated by men, these Olympic stars chose to challenge the ordinary and pave a path for Indian women in sports.

By Olympic Channel Writer

Indian sport has seen a massive rise in the number of it's female athletes shining at the world stage since the turn of the millennium.

The first moment of glory for Indian sportswomen came at Sydney 2000 when the legendary Karnam Malleswari won bronze, making her the first Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal.

More importantly, Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

It was an incredible effort - Karnam had overcome a loss of form and dealt with a new weight category like the champion athlete she was - to win the historic bronze.

She may not have stood on the top step of the podium but Karnam Malleswari had given the country something far more important - the self-belief for Indian women athletes to know that they too could bring a lot of pride to the nation.

It inspired the next generation of Indian female athletes - be it MC Mary Kom, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu or Sakshi Malik to push themselves, fight through the odds and lay claim to being among the best in the world by winning Olympic medals.

We take a look at what has driven Indian women in sports towards their goals, in their own words.

Saina Nehwal’s hunger to be the best

Saina Nehwal is the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in badminton.

New records were witnessed thanks to Saina Nehwal’s bronze at London 2012, which was India’s first-ever medal in badminton at the Olympic Games.

When she returned home with the medal, Saina Nehwal became an icon for Indian youth and Olympic dreamers. She has added many more medals, including at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, since then to her tally.

But what is it that pushes the Indian shuttle star to give her best every time she takes to the court?

I want to be the best, it's not about the ranking, it's about being consistent over a period of time.

Not just for men, proves Mary Kom

The first Indian woman boxer to win a medal at the Olympics, MC Mary Kom has been a trailblazer for Indian sports women in many ways.

Be it her six world titles or her return to the ring post-pregnancy, this legend is everything that an aspiring Indian woman athlete looks for in a role model.

But despite her achievements, Mary Kom too wasn’t spared of the rhetoric that boxing is a man’s sport. However, the Indian legend chose to answer her critics in a way she knew the best.

People used to say that boxing is for men and not for women and I thought I will show them someday. I promised myself and proved myself.

The flyweight has won a record six World Boxing Championship golds.

In her final Olympic appearance at Tokyo 2020, Mary Kom won her first bout but narrowly fell to Ingrit Victoria, a fellow Olympic bronze-medallist, in the round of 16.

Her 'Magnificent Mary' moniker is one that befits her huge status in the sport.

India has produced great boxers in the men’s category in the past but the Manipur-born southpaw has surpassed all their exploits. She continues to be an inspiration for the nation, and in particular, a huge motivation for sports women in India in particular.

It's all in the mind for PV Sindhu

Few Indians have stood on the Olympic podium with a silver medal around their neck. Only one other Indian, wrestler Sushil Kumar, has ever won two individual Olympic medals.

The first Indian ever woman to do so is PV Sindhu. Her accomplishments at Rio 2016 gave the sport added impetus while her historic win at the BWF World Championships established India as a major challenger at the top.

At Tokyo 2020, PV Sindhu made it two medals in two Olympic appearances with bronze in the women’s singles.

One of the aspects that has driven PV Sindhu over the years is her single-mindedness to achieve greatness.

The greatest asset is a strong mind. If I know someone is training harder than I am, I have no excuses.

Today, badminton is recognised as a sport in which India has a global reputation. And PV Sindhu, along with Saina Nehwal, has helped propel it to unprecedented heights, and especially for Indian women in sports.

Sakshi Malik’s fight until the end

Wrestling and India have a glorious history to fall back on at the Olympics. Be it KD Jadhav in 1952 or Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt since the turn of the century, it’s a discipline that has produced medal winners for the country.

But it wasn’t until Rio 2016 that India saw one of their own win a medal in the women’s category as well. The 2016 edition of the Games witnessed Sakshi Malik become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic wrestling medal when she bagged bronze in the 58kg category to create history.

Up against Kyrgyzstan's Aisuluu Tynybekova in her bronze medal bout, Sakshi Malik was in all sorts of trouble with just seconds to go. But it was here that the Indian wrestler pulled off a final move that saw her topple her opponent to clinch the bronze.

Speaking about the win, Sakshi Malik would later say:

I never gave up till the end, I knew I would win if I lasted six minutes. In the final round, I had to give my maximum, I had the self-belief.

Mom's the word for Sania Mirza

Inspired by stalwart Serena Williams, who returned to the tennis circuit after having a baby, Sania Mirza has begun to feel her way back into the sport as well.

The Indian tennis ace gave birth to a boy late in 2018 and was on maternal duty ever since. But 2020 saw Sania Mirza return to the court.

While returning to the professional circuit is no mean task, Sania Mirza believes it’s her love for the game that's helped her push herself to be back in the mix.

Having Izhan is the biggest blessing I could have. He's my inspiration to get back to being fit. Making a comeback is not to prove anything. The only reason to come back was that I love playing and competing

An inspiring title win at her first event on return, the Hobart International was followed by another historic achievement as she led the Indian tennis team to the Fed Cup playoffs for the first time.

Building form with every passing match, Sania Mirza made a fourth Olympic appearance at Tokyo 2020, where she made a first-round exit in the women’s doubles alongside Ankita Raina.

Sania continues to play at an elite level and is a regular contender at Grand Slams and other WTA events.

The future for Indian women in sports

At Tokyo 2020, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and boxer Lovlina Borgohain were added to the list of inspiring Indian sportswomen. 

Mirabai Chanu won silver in the women’s 49kg - only the second Indian woman to win an Olympic silver after PV Sindhu and the second Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal after Karnam Malleswari. She is also a world and Commonwealth Games champion.

Lovlina Borgohain won bronze in the women’s 69kg on Olympic debut, beating fourth seed Chen Nien-Chin of Chinese Taipei to confirm her medal. She is one of India’s youngest medallists and has a bright future ahead.

In recent times, Indian track and field has gotten new hope in the form of two stars in Hima Das and Dutee Chand.

Hima Das burst through with her gold in the World U-20 Championships and Asian Games in 2018. At one point in 2019, she rivalled the Indian cricket team’s popularity during the ICC Cricket World Cup by winning five gold medals in the space of a month in July.

Dutee Chand ran in the 100m at Rio 2016, won a gold at the World University Games and is also the national record holder in the 100m. She also ran both the 100m and 200m at Tokyo 2020.

While they are yet to hit historic highs at international level, their prowess and gradual development bodes well for the future of women in sports in India.