Their first challenge was to overcome their physical – and often debilitating – disabilities and their modest social and economic backgrounds that inhibited their sporting ambitions. But today they are being hailed as national heroes, feted by the Prime Minister, and mobbed on the streets after their spectacular performance at the recently-concluded Tokyo Paralympics from August 24, 2021 to September 5, 2021.
With 19 medals in Tokyo, the best-ever showing in 53 years, these athletes with disabilities have set new milestones for India in para-sports.
This time, there were many historic firsts, too. India sent a large contingent of 54 para-athletes to nine Paralympic events. It finished 24th in the overall medals tally out of 162 nations – the highest ever position.
Before Tokyo 2020, India had won only 12 medals since the sporting event’s inception in 1960 as global competition for athletes with disabilities parallel to the main Olympics. Paralympics developed after Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries in England in 1948.
Fighting the odds
The winning streak of the Indian para-athletes also threw light on the sheer determination and hard work that they put into their respective sports. That is the reason why today they have not only become role models for others to follow but have also handed out life lessons on what it means to fight the odds.
Their sporting journey was not easy. These para-athletes never had that easy, be it society’s acceptance or facing economic hardship that created further hurdles in achieving their dreams.
Avani Lekhara, who has now become a household name after becoming the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics and has also added a bronze to her collection, was just 11 years old when she met with an accident that left her wheelchair-bound. The once bubbly child overnight became moody and withdrawn. It was her father who took her to a shooting range to help her get over her anger. This was also the first time that she picked up a rifle, which proved to be a turning point in her life.
Describing her win as “surreal,” this 19-year-old, who was India’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony, in a tweet, said, “This win is not just for me, but for all of us who dare to dream. And, just like that, dreams do come true!”
Krishna Nagar, 22, who won a gold medal in badminton, said he was mocked for his short height throughout his childhood. “It was tough during my early days – be it school or elsewhere,” Nagar, who dedicated his medal to COVID warriors and was also ranked as number two in the world rankings of para-badminton men’s singles SH6 events, told Indiaspora.
Though 23-year-old Sumit Antil, who won a gold medal in men’s javelin throw, did not face bullying or ragging like para-athletes Sharad Kumar, who won the bronze medal in men’s high jump, and Devendra Jhajharia, who won the silver medal in men’s javelin throw, he did find it “uncomfortable” when people used to stare at his prosthetic left leg.
Antil’s childhood dream was to be a wrestler. But a motorcycle accident in 2015 when he was just 17 years old ended his long-cherished dream when his left leg was amputated.
Hailing from Sonipat in Haryana – which has been described as the sports nursery of India as the northern state provides financial rewards, offers government jobs, and gives grassroots sporting support to its raw talent who mostly come from economically weaker backgrounds, and boasts of being home for nine medal winners across the two Olympic competitions – Antil, however, was not ready to sit on the sidelines and was keen to continue his journey in sports.
So this muscular build 6’2 tall, para-athlete, who considers as his inspiration the 23-year-old Neeraj Chopra, who brought home India’s first-ever Olympic gold in track and field at Tokyo Olympics, took up the javelin and didn’t let his disability stop him from achieving his medal goal.
Gold medalist Manish Narwal, awarded the Arjuna Award, the country’s highest sporting honor in 2020, wanted to become a footballer. But a congenital ailment in his right hand meant this 19-year-old couldn’t pursue his passion. Afraid of coming in front of people, the young boy cried a lot. His father, a businessman, who was a wrestler himself, eventually found shooting in 2016 as an alternative for his son to excel at. A native of Ballabgarh in Haryana, Narwal, whose siblings have also taken up shooting now, has won 19 medals across different categories from 2016-2019.
Praveen Kumar, who became the youngest Indian to win a medal in Tokyo Paralympics, was ready to give up on the high jump in 2019 after his World Para Athletics Junior Championship category was changed.
“I was planning to quit sports and leave for my village. My coach Satyapal called me and told me to give it another year and pursue it for my family’s sake. He motivated me and told me not to lose heart,” Kumar, 18, told Indiaspora.
“Disabled people, because of their disability, don’t want to take up sports. They don’t want to be judged by people because of their disabilities. They don’t feel like coming out of their homes and prefer doing some other jobs rather than taking up sports.”
Coming from a small village Jewar in Uttar Pradesh, Kumar practiced high jump by using a rope as there was no stadium or sporting facilities in his town. “I had no idea about how to train or what diet I need to take. There were no facilities in my village,” Kumar, who won a silver medal, said.
His words hold true for other medal winners and even for those who unluckily lost like Vinod Kumar. The family of the 41-year-old started celebrating when he was declared a bronze winner in the discus throw. But their world came crashing down when his win was declared void after he was found ineligible in the disability classification assessment by the competition panel. Today, the dejected Kumar, who lives in rented accommodation with his wife and two children in Rohtak, Haryana, has no income and has to pay loans. He hopes he can look after his family, or he would have to leave sports for good.
Four-time world champion Pramod Bhagat, also an Asian champion, had contracted polio when he was four years old. This gold medalist picked up badminton as his first love was cricket after watching his neighbors play. Initially, this Arjuna awardee competed against able-bodied players before getting into competitive para-badminton in 2006.
Hailing from Attabira in Odisha, Bhagat, 33, went through a difficult phase when he lost his father and supported his family by coaching and opening a store. He has said that every athlete faces hurdles in his sporting journey, but para-athletes face more hurdles and difficulties.
But going by the number of felicitations and functions they have attended, it seems their grit, strong will and determination have finally paid off as now they are being recognized and being hailed for their achievements.
According to California-based V.R. Ferose, author and influential advocate of people with disabilities, “we have seen a huge improvement in the facilities and support extended to the current Paralympians.
“While there is still a long way to go, we are headed in the right direction,” said Ferose, whose work has been recognized by the UN and has recently launched an initiative’ Everyone is good at something.”
Rightly calling them “ambassadors of the country,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had met the athletes before they left for Tokyo, and congratulated each of the medal winners personally with phone calls – a gesture that made athletes from other countries envious – hoped their achievements would “significantly boost the morale of the entire sporting community” and that “budding sportspersons will feel encouraged to come forward to take up sports.”
Describing the Tokyo Paralympics as “a watershed moment for India,” Neha Aggarwal, who represented India in table tennis at the Beijing 2008 Olympics and now heads Partnerships at Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a foundation for the promotion of sports and games, said: “They are all role models for all Indians, and the impact of their medals will surely be felt in years to come with increased participation at state and national level.”
OGQ, which supported both Nagar and Praveen Kumar to achieve their Olympic dream, was founded by legendary sports persons Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone in 2001 to help Indian athletes win Olympic Gold medals. In the last three Olympics – London 2012, Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020 – India won 14 medals; they supported nine of the 14 medal winners. At the Tokyo Paralympics, the activity of 10 out of the 19 medal winners was endorsed by them. They are now supporting the training of 35 para-athletes across six para-sports by providing them with coaches, international training and tournaments, equipment, and other medical needs.
Change in mindset
Nagar is hopeful that the medal tally will bring a change in people’s mindsets.
“I hope there will be a change in the mindset of the people who look at the para-athletes with sympathy. Though we are differently-abled, our approach and attitude towards life are the same as any other individuals,” added Nagar.
Aggarwal said many Indians watched with apt attention the para-athletes’ performance on television. “These para-athletes are an inspiration to all Indians and prove what people with disabilities can do given good support.
“They are all superheroes. I am confident that with continued success at the Paralympics, the mindset of people will surely change,” she said, adding that OGQ is planning to scale up their operations and are continuously scouting for talented athletes and para-athletes.
To change the mindset, authorities in the Indian capital gave a makeover to a wall on a busy road with a mural showcasing these para-athletes’ outstanding achievements.
Apart from their indomitable spirit, what motivated and encouraged them was that they were considered at par with non-disabled athletes and given the same training and exposure abroad. Even the cash award and jobs offered by governments were the same. Their talent also drew foundations and corporate India, like IndusInd Bank and Sony Pictures.
The superb show can also be credited to various government initiatives undertaken by the Sports Authority of India, the apex national sports body of India; the National Sports Federations (NSFs); the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which selects athletes to represent India at the Olympic Games, Asian Games and other international athletic meets; and the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), which organizes competitive sporting activities for para-athletes and is headed by Deepa Malik, a para-athlete who won the silver medal in shot put at the Rio Paralympics.
One of the initiatives is TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme), a flagship program of India’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, launched in 2014 and was further revamped in 2018 to provide financial and other assistance to India’s top athletes at the Olympics. Malik, herself a beneficiary of TOPS, and the first Indian woman to win a medal in Paralympics, and an Arjuna and Padma Shri awardee, is sure that India would double its tally at China in 2022 as athletes with disabilities are now getting more funds, training abroad and are provided with the best equipment and medical facilities.
Nagar said there was a time when several members of the Indian contingent were not even aware that there was something called para-sports. “Things are changing, and it’s in the right direction only,” he said, adding that he is hopeful that more people would take up the sport as a career in the future and bring laurels to India.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.