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Rural women promise upsurge for India


N.Ananthanarayanan (Reuters)

3 November 2000 – New Delhi - A rare gold for an 18-year-old discus thrower at a world junior championship and an unexpected weightlifting bronze at the Sydney Olympics has spurred hopes that rural women could answer the prayers of medal-starved India.

Karnam Malleswari lifted a bronze in the 69 kg category last month to become the first woman from India to win an Olympic medal, the one-billion-strong nation's only trophy at the games.

Weeks after the 25-year-old from a southern Indian village won her medal, teenager Seema Antil travelled halfway round the globe from the rural town of Sonepat in northern India's farming state of Haryana to strike gold at Santiago.

Antil nailed the medal at the World Junior Championships in athletics in Chile with her last attempt in a display of impressive temperament and talent.

The twin success has provided a glimpse of a quiet social change with an increasing number of hardy young women from rural India striving to succeed in demanding physical sports.

TABOOS FALLING AWAY

Traditional taboos and restrictions on women are being eradicated, while rural women, thanks to growing exposure to physical activities, are good raw material.

"Rural girls are physically very strong as they tend to cattle and help out in farm work," said Maharaj Kaushik, India's former chief hockey coach.

Kaushik, a senior sports official in Haryana state involved in talent-scouting and training, said city women were burdened with studies while those in villages had more free time.

"In rural areas schools are not far and girls come into sports. More are coming these days due to television and press coverage that reaches every village," he said.

Antil comes from a sporting family. Her eldest brother, Anandpal Singh, is an international wrestler and another brother, Amitpal, is a hockey player.

However, Kaushik said that while rural talent was rich, better training facilities -- particularly to build temperament -- were important.

Sporting officials hope that victories and medals will kindle sponsorships and backing vital to sustain an athletics drive.

Companies largely restrict sponsorships to cricket, India's favourite game, but recent tax incentives for funding Olympic sports and the inspiring set of medals could change the scene.

India's women weightlifters, athletes, hockey, basketball and volleyball players mostly come from rural areas, and usually look for economic security in the form of sports quota jobs in the government, state-controlled firms and the railways.

The athletes often stagnate after a series of domestic victories and some lacklustre international shows.

A rare exception to the rule came in the early 1980s, when P.T. Usha emerged from the southern state of Kerala to just miss a medal in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

India's 24-member athletic team fared poorly in Sydney. Antil was nowhere near qualifying for the Olympics, but took part in the national camp in the run-up to the games.

REALISING POTENTIAL

Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, a high hurdles finalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a national athletics selector feels that "Seema is young and is an excellent potential, but she requires proper handling. Instead of talking about an Olympic medal, she should set goals in terms of distances," he said.

Indian athletes have to travel and compete in weekend competitions in Europe regularly to improve and develop competition temperament, he added.

Antil took to athletics six years ago and trained to be a high jumper and hurdler before switching to discus a year ago.

"She had good height," said trainer Jaswant Singh, who is also her husband and coach of Asian Games silver medallist Neelam Singh.

Antil capped an improvement of 10 metres in the last year by handing Neelam her first defeat in two years in a national event at Calcutta.

FOREIGN EXPOSURE

Former national coach Joginder Singh Saini, who is in charge of the junior athletic programme, said the victory was "a great occasion India has been looking forward to for ages".

Saini said there was a proposal to send promising athletes to Europe and German athletics officials to whom he spoke in Santiago were ready to provide training facilities there.

A lack of foreign exposure has been a constant talking point. But Lalit Bhanot, secretary of the Amateur Athletic Federation of India, said there was no plan to send Antil abroad for a long period as such programmes had not yielded results in the past.

"We'll send her abroad for two to three months. But there is no chance of sending her on a permanent basis," he said.

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