India's Rio Paralympics success: How parallel sports is on the cusp of revolution

Cash prizes, cars, houses and what not. India's victorious Rio returnees were met with awards galore. The country's biggest ever Olympic contingent took time to deliver the two medals, but when they came, the nation celebrated like never before. It was one of the biggest ever post-Olympic parties in India and this wasn't even our best performance. The change though, was welcome, and India's Olympic achievers would have felt they got what they deserved.

However, the celebrations faded away just when events in Rio gave India further reason to cheer. India's parallel sport athletes were making the country proud. A record tally of four medals, including two individual golds, at the Rio Paralympics was received well back home, but not with the same vigour as compared to the achievement of the able-bodied athletes. The appreciation that was lacking before was there, but the country was still not ready to put the Paralympians on the same pedestal as the Olympic athletes.

 Indias Rio Paralympics success: How parallel sports is on the cusp of revolution

India's medal-winning Paralympians were felicitated by Sachin Tendulkar and other like-minded dignitaries in Mumbai. Twiter

Monday, however, seemed to be an exception. Top dignitaries from across the country, led by Sachin Tendulkar, were in the audience as India's four medallists from the Rio Paralympics and also those from the past were awarded and felicitated with the same joy as the triumphant Olympians are.

"It’s sad that every time we say Paralympics, we have to add that it's Olympic Paralympics. It’s still not understood that Paralympics also means an Olympic level competition. I’m glad that these functions are happening now and not just us but the legacy and history of the Paralympics is being recognised," Deepa Malik, India's first woman Paralympic medallist told reporters at the ceremonial event in Mumbai.

"We are so used to see Sachin Tendulkar sitting where we are right now, with us (sitting) on the other side. But today, he has placed us here and he is in the audience. It is a huge honour for us," she added, hinting towards a change in perception towards India's para athletes.

Sitting two seats away, Devendra Jhajharia — India's only athlete to win two individual gold medals at the Olympic level — was perhaps the greatest witness of these changing times. Having won a gold medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games in men's javelin throw and setting a world record in the process, the 35-year-old produced a repeat of his performance from 12 years ago at Rio. He won another gold medal and again set a world record at the Rio Paralympics this year.

"In 2004, the scenario was different. Nobody knew para sports, there was hardly any government support. But the medal in 2016 was very different," Jhajharia told Firstpost in an exclusive chat after the event.

"I had trained very hard for the 2016 Games. I was away from home for two years, after that I was in Finland for training. I used to train for eight hours per day. I had never trained so much in my life. I would like to thank GoSports Foundation for the support. They supported us (para athletes) even before the Olympians and their support made a big difference," he added.

Varun Bhati, a bronze medallist in men's high jump said India's performance at the Rio Paralympics was the start of a Paralympic movement and felt the media and it's coverage of the Games have made it possible.

"In 2012 we had just ten athletes and won just one medal. At Rio, we won four medals and sent 19 athletes. The media coverage of the Games has also been better, the Paralympic movement has surely gained pace in our country," said the 21-year-old who's considered to be among the most talented para athletes in the world at the moment.

"A lot of credit for this goes to institutes like GoSports who have got the media talking about the Games, and have approached the media in a very educated way. Paralympic sport was becoming synonymous to the underprivileged, more like a charity sport as it had disability attached to it. But that's changing now. These four medals have actually contributed to a revolution," added Malik.

'Movement' and 'revolution' are strong words to use, but the progress made by para athletes in the past few years has been noteworthy. With over 30 per cent of India's Paralympics medals so far coming at Rio, those words are perhaps justified.

The government has been forced to acknowledge this fact. Earlier para athletes weren't considered for the prestigious Khel Ratna award, but with the latest contingent of para athletes outshining their able-bodied counterparts at Rio, the government has decided to change its stance and all four medallists from the Rio Paralympics are set to be conferred with the Khel Ratna award next year.

Devendra Jhajharia, India's most successful athlete at Olympics with two gold medals. AFP

Devendra Jhajharia, India's most successful athlete at Olympics with two gold medals. AFP

"I feel the government has taken a big decision. It will send a very positive message to all the para athletes. If one gets a voice of support, it serves as a very big motivating factor," Jhajharia said at the felicitation event in Mumbai.

"The changes are promising. Hopefully more athletes will take part in the National Games and more of them will get the chance to qualify for Paralympics in the future. If more athletes qualify, we will win more medals," Bhati added.

While the changes bode well for the future, it adds weight to the feats of these Paralympians and those in the past. Winning a medal at the Olympic level with all support is tough enough, but to do that with little help from the state, and almost non-existent acknowledgment from the society, takes a lot of doing.

"When I was a swimmer back in 2008, we had a very senior politician visiting us and we were served two biscuit packets and a banana each as a gift, when one costume for the event cost twenty thousand," recalled Malik.

"There were people who asked me how I jump from a parachute when I have no sensation below the chest. How do you perform para jumps? I had to tell them that I play para sports and don’t para jump. That was the level of awareness," she added.

The tale was far worse for Mariyappan Thangavelu - India's gold medallist in men's high jump at Rio. Mariyappan, who was left with a permanent disability in his leg that was crushed by a bus driven by a drunk person, was a victim of the darker side of our society. The young boy who was enthusiastic about sports had no one to play with as nobody wanted to. This made Mariyappan determined. He resolved to make his mother - a daily wage earner - proud.

Malik, 45, had been participating in sports competitions since 2006, and had won 58 gold medals at the national level and 18 at the international level. The Arjuna awardee had participated in swimming and track and field events despite a spinal tumour leaving her paralysed from the chest down in 1999. With a restricted and calculated diet, training and preparing for the game was a challenge in itself. A winner of the Maharashtra Chhatrapati Award, Malik had to shift her base to native Haryana in search of policies that facilitated sports.

There was the passion, the desire, the will to battle the odds and then there were also people who won't offer their guidance.

"In this country there is a lot of talent, who need little bit of support. They need to be given encouragement. Heroes from district levels to national levels must be encouraged by their friends, parents and teachers. It gives them a reason to excel," Satyanarayana, the man who coached three of India's 12 Paralympics so far told Firstpost.

"My role is to encourage the athletes, tell them they can do better and give them the basic technical training. If there is someone who can do this on a regular basis to these athletes it makes a huge difference," added Satyanarayana, who was the coach of Mariyappan and Varun Bhati at Rio.

Spotting the potential in young athletes and grooming them into champions is something that Satyanarayana has achieved more than once in his career, and given the current trend of growing recognition for the para athletes, he sees no need to alter his role.

"Now their (Mariyappan and Varun) life is made. My job is to find new players who can win another medal for India in the future. The Indian government and the Paralympic Committee of India are doing a great job. The support is fantastic. Now I can focus on unearthing more talents. It's important we win 20-30 medals not just at the Paralympics but also at the Olympics to be called a sports nation," he concluded.

"The big difference now is all the channels, the media are making plans for the next Olympic events. Earlier only a few newspapers wrote, a few ceremonies took place and that was it. But now I can see that it's not going to be a forgotten story, it's going to be a legend that's going to live on," an optimistic and assured Malik told Firstpost. 

Despite the positive turn of events, India still has a long way to go to become an Olympic or Paralympic powerhouse. The infrastructure and continuous support is still lacking. However, a record medal tally at the 2016 Paralympics means forces with powers to change the situation must take notice.

For the athletes though, the sleepless nights spent to win the medals refuse to go away. "Initially the desire, the dream to participate and win a medal at the Paralympics didn’t allow us to sleep, and now this medal, the appreciation and responsibility that’s come with it won't let us sleep," Malik aptly summed it up.

Updated Date: Oct 05, 2016 19:04:05 IST