It has been a long wait. Twelve years after he stood on the podium at the Athens Paralympics, the gold medal dangling from his neck and the Indian national anthem playing in the background, Devendra Jhajharia is getting ready for a taste of the mega event all over again.

“Ye to jaise Kumbh ke mele ka intezaar hai (This is like waiting for the Kumbh mela)," says the 35-year-old.

Jhajharia won gold in the javelin throw at the 2004 Athens Games with a world record throw of 62.15m. It was the first individual gold by an Indian athlete at the Paralympics, and the first world record set by an Indian at the Para Games.

Jhajharia was off to a dream start. But the F46 category for men that Jhajharia competes in—for athletes with unilateral upper limb impairment—was not included in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Paralympics.

Momentarily dropping his trademark smile, Jhajharia says: “Whatever the reason, the event was not there in those two editions of the Paralympics. I have made a world record, won a gold medal, so I have achieved a lot in my career. But it was my wish in life that I get one last chance at the Paralympics, and I have got that. I don’t want anything more."

Jhajharia booked his berth for the 2016 Rio Paralympics (7-18 September) when he claimed the silver medal at the IPC Athletics World Championships in October in Doha. The Indian athlete had a best throw of 59.06m.

Almost 36 now, he believes that the Games in Brazil will be the final chapter of an athletic journey that began, ironically, with an accident when he was 8. He was electrocuted by a live cable; strangely enough, Jhajharia’s village in Rajasthan, Churu, did not even have electricity at the time. “I didn’t know what electricity was at the time. There was no electricity in the village, but it was travelling on a cable that ran through there," he says.

“I had climbed up the tree to break a branch and I happened to touch the line, which had 11,000 volts. I was alone at the time and stuck on the tree. It was close to the village. There was a lot of smoke, so villagers rushed to it. When they got me down from the tree, they had declared me dead. My left arm was all burnt. But slowly, I regained consciousness. When they took me to the doctor, he said I will never be strong in my life. But God had a different plan."

Till then, he had just been playing with children his age in school or the village. That changed, and he turned seriously towards sporting pursuits.

“After I lost my left hand, when I used to play with my friends, they used to tell me you have become weak. They would not want me to be a part of their team. That’s when I started playing sports seriously, to prove I was not weak."

Though the village was not big on sport, his school had some basic track-and-field facilities, including javelins. Jhajharia, whose parents are small-time farmers, used to follow and observe the javelin throw events in school.

“The first javelin that I owned, I fashioned it myself from a bamboo stick," he says.

“I started in athletics with javelin. I liked it because I could do it with one arm. I was very thin and weak so I couldn’t really do shot-put. Even discus was heavy. This was a little easy. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that this requires better overall fitness than the other field events, and it is the most injury-prone sport."

At the age of 14, competing with regular athletes with his home-made javelin, Jhajharia became the district champion. But not without running the gauntlet of awkward stares from the audience.

“Whenever I went for competitions, people would look at me, then say that someone has recommended me, that’s why I’m here. But then they used to see me throw the javelin and would come and tell me, ‘Sorry we said that; you really are a champion’. But I was used to it since everyone used to look at me like that. Winning the district championship, though, gave me a big boost; that was the turning point in my life."

Despite financial problems and the absence of awareness and facilities for para athletes in the country, Jhajharia fought his way up.

His first brush with fame came at the 2002 Busan Asian Games; he was stunned by the scale and scope of the Paralympic movement (it had more than 2,000 athletes competing in 17 sports). His first international medal came at the age of 21, when he claimed gold at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled, in Korea in 2002.

The crowning glory was the Athens Paralympics. “I didn’t sleep that whole night," recalls Jhajharia. “At 11.30pm, I sat up thinking, is this a dream? Did I actually do that? The Indian national anthem was played at the Games for the first time, the Indian tricolour was fluttering. That day was for India, and there can’t be a better feeling."

Apart from Abhinav Bindra, Jhajharia is the only active Indian athlete who has won a gold medal at an Olympic/Paralympic event. But Jhajharia, who is also an Arjuna and Padma Shri awardee, still largely flies under the radar. Though 14 other para athletes and he are currently being funded by a joint venture of the non-profit Go Sports and IndusInd Bank, para sports haven’t quite taken off in the country.

“The government is working for differently abled people," he says. “People’s attitudes have gone through a world of change since I started playing. They don’t think that the differently abled are incapable of doing great things. But a lot more needs to be done. If you go abroad, there are multipurpose stadiums for para athletes, where wheelchair-bound people can go anywhere and play any sport."

Jhajharia was given a personal coach once his qualification for Rio was confirmed. National camps have been set up for para athletes through the Sports Authority of India. The country still does not have an organized national body for para sports and lack of resources is a perennial problem. But Jhajharia believes the athletes have become adept at overcoming those odds.

“We got one silver medal in London, but the Rio Paralympics will be memorable for India," he says. “I’m telling you right now, we are going to come back with at least six-seven medals." Jhajharia, like most para athletes, is not interested in winning just hearts.

Close