These women brought home gold medals for Nepal but they’ve been all but forgottenSijarin Shah and Gita Chhetri, who won the table tennis gold in women’s team event in 1991, were not invited to the torch rally for the upcoming South Asian Games.
When Nepal won their eight gold medals in the first four editions of the South Asian Games, then called the South Asian Federation Games, none of the winners were women. It was only in the fifth edition of the games, held in 1991 in Sri Lanka, that Nepali women won two gold medals.
Paddlers Sijarin Shah and Gita Chhetri won Nepal’s first gold in the table tennis team event against India while Anita Shrestha won another in the 10-metre air rifle event in shooting.
“India were a force to reckon with. They were way better than us and we did not expect to win gold. To be honest, we looked at India as world champions,” said Shah, recalling the 1991 Games. “There was a massive support for Nepal, probably because we were playing against India. Athletes, officials, and spectators from other nations were rooting for us and that helped.”
The women’s table tennis team event also featured Puja Thapa and Neelam Tuladhar alongside Shah and Chhetri. However, Shah and Chhetri played all matches as they were the top seeds.
Riding on the back of brilliant performances in the round-robin league, the Nepali paddlers stormed into the semi-finals, where they powered past Pakistan to take on India in the final. The duo were initially not confident of winning against their rivals, who had gotten the better of them in the past, said Shah.
Shah lost her singles match, but Chhetri won hers to bring Nepal back on level terms at 1-1. Nepal opened up a lead when the pair won their doubles match. But the see-saw battle continued as Shah lost again, which saw India make a comeback to level the scores.
When Chhetri won, she made history for Nepali women athletes at the Games by putting an end to their wait for gold.
“I told myself that it was important to win my match, irrespective of who the opponent was,” said Chhetri.
Chhetri’s victory is a testament to the importance of quality sporting equipment. When she won for Nepal, she used a bat with a pimpled anti-spin rubber for the first time. Chhetri, who was 24 then, said she was the first Nepali paddler to use a pimpled bat, which helps control the spin of the ball and forces errors from the opponent.
But much to their chagrin, Shah and Chhetri returned home to a cold welcome.
“As the first women to win gold for Nepal, we had a lot of expectations,” said Chhetri. “But nobody came to receive us at the airport. There was no felicitation.”
The government had assured that gold medal winners would receive all the perks and facilities of a government officer, but that plan never saw the light of the day. The government provided Rs 100,000 to the team that won the gold, and the amount was shared equally among the four members.
Bucking the tradition of the National Sports Council appointing athletes who won gold as coaches, Shah and Chhetri were instead offered the posts of assistant coaches. Neither of them took the job. Six years after they won the gold, in 1997, the government said it would provide Rs 1,500 a month to gold medalists, but that initiative too was discontinued after a few years. In 2016, the government once decided to provide a nominal amount to gold medal winners so the pair now receives Rs 5,000 every month, which serves more as a reminder of their gold medal win than anything else.
Both the women are members of the Nepal Veteran Table Tennis Association and occasionally visit the covered hall in Lainchaur where most table tennis tournaments are held.
“Things changed after marriage, as we could hardly get out of the home. We don’t even receive any invitations to sporting events these days,” said Chhetri.
According to Chhetri, neither of them were invited for the torch rally for the upcoming 13th South Asian Games that will be held from December 1 to 10 in Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Janakpur. All other gold medal winners were in attendance, she said.
The 1991 games would be the last game where the duo would win gold. Chhetri was featured in one more international tournament in 1994 upon the request of the Table Tennis Association and then bid a farewell to the sport. Shah played again at the 1995 Games in India, but without her longtime partner.
“I probably had lost touch and could not play as a good partner anymore,” said Shah.
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