The Olympics wrapped up with Indian athletes Neeraj Chopra, Mirabai Chanu and PV Sindhu bringing home gold, silver and bronze medals respectively. The winners arrived in their hometowns to celebrations, smiles and words of encouragement, but it was a different welcome for those who did not win medals. Instead of hope and praise, all they received were discouraging words and racist slurs.
Criticism is something that athletes are used to. However, when fans bring casteism, politics and violence into the picture, the line is clearly being crossed. And it’s a no-brainer that this affects their state of mind undesirably.
The most recent example is that of Vinesh Phogat. Having failed to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the 23-year-old wrestler faced criticism from all quarters. Right after her match, she was also temporarily suspended by the Wrestling Federation of India on account of indiscipline—refusal to stay at the Games Village and train with the other Indian team members as well as wearing a Nike singlet during her bouts instead of the official sponsors of the Indian contingent. All of this took a toll on her.
Hurt by the suspension, the grappler shared a heartfelt note publicly. She revealed that she had faced several physical injuries and mental issues over the course of three years which all impacted her performance at the Olympics. “I knew that in India, you fall as fast as you rise. One medal (lost) and everything is finished…We celebrate Simone Biles as she said that I am not mentally prepared to perform at the Olympics and did not do her event. Try just saying that in India. Forget pulling out of wrestling, just try saying that you are not ready…I don’t know when I will return (to the mat). Maybe I won’t. I feel I was better off with that broken leg. I had something to correct. Now my body is not broken, but I’m truly broken.” she shared in her statement.
Indian players are expected to overthrow their opponents and beat the regressive society to bring home medals. The Women’s Hockey Team made history as they entered the semi-finals for the first time ever in the Olympics. Vandana Katariya, a forward on the hockey team was lauded for being the only woman to score a hattrick during the games. However, back home, the reaction to her achievement was shocking. Two men from her village in Uttarakhand burst crackers, danced in mock celebration and hurled casteist slurs outside her family’s house. In fact, one of them reportedly said that the team lost because it has too many Dalit players.
Apart from the Olympics, there have been incidents of inappropriate reactions from fans towards cricketers. Earlier this year, MS Dhoni didn’t perform well during an IPL match. He was not only criticised for it but it went to the extent of a 16-year-old boy sending Dhoni’s five-year-old daughter rape threats on social media, leading to a huge outrage from other fans and celebrities. The police eventually arrested the teenager, but one can’t imagine how such an incident affects the victim’s family. Even in the past World Cups, when the Indian cricket team lost certain matches, their houses were vandalised and players’s effigies were burnt on the roads. How traumatising is that for the players!
On a global front, football is another sport in which athletes face racism. Case in point: the recent Euros 2020 finals that took place this July. Moments after England lost to Italy on penalties, three Black players—Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukaya Saka—were targeted for missing the penalties and were blamed for the loss with toxic racist comments on social media. This caused a massive stir in the football fraternity with many athletes expressing their disappointment over the comments. Rashford shared an open letter that revealed how he felt and stated he will “never apologise for who I am.”
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) July 12, 2021
It’s easy to use phone screens as a buffer and offer unsolicited advice on how athletes should play during the game, but unless we walk a mile in their shoes, we’re off the mark in doing so. We have to be cognisant of the amount of pressure and weight that is upon them on the field, especially when they are representing the nation.
As fans and viewers, we love to see our favourite sports stars lift the trophy and celebrate their wins with them. However, when they lose a game, why is it that we still can’t respect all the hard work they put in? Will failures always be weighed against your skin colour or where you come from? It’s time we start recognising the athletes’ efforts during their defeats as much as we do during their wins!