India at the Paralympics
The year 2021 was indeed a truly memorable one for India’s paralympians who rubbished the thinking of “yeh bechari hain” to “hum bechari nahin hain” bagging a record 19 medals of five gold, eight silver and six bronze medals and ranking 24th in the medals tally.
Inspirational, incredible and indomitable. India’s paralympians managed to be all these and much more in an epoch-making campaign at the Tokyo Games.
Most importantly, it was a performance during which history was scripted almost everyday with the contingent living up to the ‘Spirit in Motion’ motto of the Games.
The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) president Deepa Malik hoped the 19 medals bagged at the Tokyo Paralympics will help bring more stakeholders in teaming up with para sports. She also said that the aim is now to identify and nurture new talent.
“We are definitely hoping that more stakeholders will come forward and hold our hand. We as a federation are responsible to create new talent, identify and work with new talent, so that is the aim right now,” said Deepa.
“We are going to short-list important qualifying international events and the Youth Asian Para Games are also coming in Bahrain. In February, we also have to start working with the U20 younger brigade because you see how beautifully younger brigade has performed in Tokyo 2020,” she said.
“The Gen-Next is ready and roaring. We need to give them a platform to get classified and go out and participate, get international exposure, get more and more opportunities to get them medically classified, otherwise the new talent gets wasted. They have to get classified as soon as possible because they can then start training in the correct categorization,” said Deepa.
Even on the last day of competitions, the medal rush did not stop and Krishna Nagar won a gold after Noida’s District Magistrate Suhas Yathiraj signed off his brilliant run with a silver to complete a remarkable badminton show.
The duo’s performance was like icing on the cake for the contingent which found new heroes, celebrated some established ones and brought para-sports firmly into spotlight in India.
To put things in perspective, at the 2016 Rio Games, India had 19 athletes across five disciplines with four returning with medals in the end.
“Phenomenal Rise of Indian Paralympians! A New Era has Begun,” said Sports Minister Anurag Thakur.
There were several firsts to celebrate and the euphoria lasted the entire duration of the Games.
One has to take into account the various factors that helped the country’s parasports persons to bring laurels and that is a firm push by the government and firm hand holding by private players, mushrooming of exclusive arenas and incentives and most significantly, a level playing field for para and able bodied athletes.
What is very significant and yielded rich dividends and would continue to do so is that the entire 54-member Indian contingent to the Tokyo Paralympics which was the largest ever was a part of the Central Government’s flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).
The government spent almost Rs 8.3 crore on para-sports from 2018-19 to 2021-22 and this spending was athlete-specific and came at the right time.
Public-private partnerships too played a role. Working with para-athletes since 2008, CoSports Foundation was affiliated with 11 of the 19 para-athletes for Rio 2016 and continued its work ahead of the Tokyo Games when the Sports Ministry got in touch.
“They’d call and ask us what all we’ve done for a particular athlete so that there is no duplication,” said GoSports’ executive director Deepthi Bopaiah.
This time, another private initiative, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), got involved in supporting para-athletes – ten of whom picked up medals.
“Earlier, we had to book time slots to play, but now we have a dedicated professional academy with all facilities and sports science equipment,” says para-badminton head coach Gaurav Khanna about his facility in Lucknow.
“We can decide when to schedule practice. And then there is the gym, steam bath, ice bath, hydrotherapy – everything a professional athlete needs,” Gaurav said.
Two athletes, shooters Avani Lekhara and Singhraj Adana, finished on podium twice, creating their own legacies in their debut Paralympics.
The 19-year-old Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win a Games gold (10m air rifle) and later added a bronze in 50m rifle 3 positions to ensure that her name would now be part of every India-centric Paralympic quiz.
It was an inspiring show by the teenager who was paralysed waist down after being injured in a car accident in 2012.
She was fittingly India’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony, an honour that she had earned with a stupendous performance.
The 39-year-old Adana, on the other hand, was a late bloomer after taking a liking to the pistol while dropping his nephew to the range.
His right hand impaired, Adana knocked off a 10m air pistol bronze and 50m pistol silver to ensure that India had more than one double-medallist in the same Games for the first time ever.
There was the first medal in archery through Harvinder Singh (bronze), impaired after wrong medication for dengue, the first medal in table tennis by waist-down paralysed Bhavinben Patel (silver) and also a remarkable two gold medals in badminton through short of stature Nagar and a polio-stricken Pramod Bhagat. Another shooting star rose on the horizon with Manish Narwal, all of 19, already a world champion and now a Paralympic champion as well.
Narwal’s right hand is impaired and he originally wanted to be a footballer but fate had other plans for the Lionel Messi fan.
Not to mention the legends — Devendra Jhajharia (javelin throw) and Mariyappan Thangavelu (high jump).
The two long-time flag-bearers of Indian para-sports, who won gold medals in 2016 Rio, and finished on podium again, this time with silver medals, cementing their place among all-time greats of Indian sports.
Nearly half (8) of India’s haul this time came from the track-and-field arena with javelin thrower Sumit Antil shining the brightest with a gold en route which he shattered his own world record five times over.
Antil was pursuing a career in wrestling, as his family wanted, before a bike accident led to the amputation of his left leg, changing the course of his life forever.
At 18, Praveen Kumar became India’s youngest medallist with a silver in high jump which came with an Asian record for the debutant, whose left leg is impaired.
Another shining star was Sundar Singh Gurjar, who finished behind Jhajharia in javelin throw.
The performance was a perfect end to India’s Tokyo sojourn after able-bodied athletes snared an unprecedented seven Olympic medals last month, including the first individual gold in 13 years.
But the paralympians bested their tally by quite a distance.
In the process, they also handed out life lessons on what it means to fight the odds.
The Games truly lived up to an old marketing slogan coined to promote the event — “The Olympics is where heroes are made. The Paralympics is where heroes come.”
By Sri Krishna