Mumbai: With badminton taking off in India in a big way, few are aware of a legend of the game who not only won numerous medals for India globally, but was crowned as ‘Deaflympian of the Century’ by the International Olympics Committee’s sub-committee, CISS (Committee International des Sports des Sourds.)
Now a UK citizen, 49-year-old Rajeev Bagga is in India on a brief visit as a special guest for the Mumbai-leg of the Premier Badminton League (PBL). Born deaf, but with a genius IQ, Bagga had a supportive and sports-loving family, and his parents and sister Sangeeta constantly encouraged him to play sports.
In a candid chat with Firspost, Bagga revealed how, as a kid, he was into multiple sports – he played squash and carom apart from badminton – and that his father asked him to choose one. He said that though he played with both deaf and hearing badminton players and was sometimes bullied, he never got scared, though his parents were always worried about him.
Recruited by Hindustan Petroleum in Mumbai, at the tender age of 18 as a sports officer, it was a job that took him to various tournaments in India. He started his career in the hearing open category in squash, tennis and badminton, winning medals at the state (Maharashtra) level and national level.
It was only when he turned 18 in 1989 that he represented India at the World Deaf Games (that later went on to become the IOC’s Deaflympics) in Christchurch, New Zealand. He swept the men’s singles and doubles gold medals and put India on the top – a position that India would sustain for two decades. His debut at the Christchurch World Games opened up the avenue for deaf sports in India in a large way.
After beating Prakash Padukone at the Indian national championships, Bagga went on to reach the main stage of the 1990 All England Open Badminton Championships, defeating the Korean player Ahen Chang in the third round of qualification – the only deaf person to achieve this distinction. He won the national men’s singles title twice, in 1991 and 1992, as well as the men’s doubles in the 1990, he has been the captain of the Maharashtra badminton team during the 1990s, and has represented the Indian national team in BWF (Badminton World Federation) championships including the Commonwealth Games, Thomas Cup, All England Championships, Malaysian Open, Swedish, Swiss and Austrian Opens, Asian Badminton Championships. Overall he has made 60 appearances in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I had a tough time initially, but I remained positive, eager to move forward. I’m proud to be a deaf badminton champion and every time I won, I wanted to prove a point to my competitor that we are equal,” said Bagga.
Very few in India know that Rajeev Bagga is the only deaf elite sportsman to win laurels in both the international Open as well as the deaf circuit for a very long time. His record in Deafylmpics is staggering – four gold for India at the 1993 Games in Bulgaria, three gold at the 1997 Games in Denmark, three more gold in 2001 in Italy and two gold in 2005 in Australia.
He continues to be the only sportsman to have reigned at the top of a sport at the Olympics for 20 straight years. “I cannot imagine life without sports,” he confessed.
Experts of the game were astonished to watch a 42-year-old Bagga, now representing UK, playing his sixth consecutive Deaflympics in 2009 and later going down to a 20-year-old Russian player in a very close finals of the Deaflympics in Taipei. He continued to be the only deaf player in the 40+ Opens Veterans circuit who was a gold medal winner.
Asked about the existing badminton scene in India, the legend quipped, “India is on the verge of becoming a badminton powerhouse. I want to tell officials to reduce administration and focus on coaching of different kinds. Give incentives, fund the players and the results will come.”
A role model in the world of badminton, Bagga is a Chhatrapati Shivaji and Arjuna Award winner. Laurels are not new to this genial sportsman, who was at the helm of Indian badminton, winning prestigious events individually, as well as helping India reach greater heights at a time when badminton was not the high profile sports it is today.
“Technology has made me independent. Social networking, interpreters are very useful to deaf sportsman as they inculcate a sense of equality and helps them to excel,” added Bagga, who is now a certified badminton coach and lives in Coventry, coaching Great Britain as well as the Austrian national badminton teams.
However, Bagga continues to have a strong bond with India. Asked whether he is open to any role in training back home, Bagga quipped, “If I’m offered something good, why not? You never know!”
Smita Deshmukh is a senior journalist and communications expert based in Mumbai. You can tweet her @smitadeshmukh
Updated Date: Feb 20, 2017 17:10 PM