The lonely heroism of the para athlete
Our para athlete medallists from Rio are miracle-workers who defied a system broken beyond repair
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Till 2011, Saheb Hussain had been racing against what he calls “normal” athletes. He is 75% blind in both eyes since birth, but the concept of sports for the differently abled hadn’t trickled down to his small town of Halisahar in West Bengal. In 2011, he participated in his first trials for the National Para Athletics Championships. In 2012, having made the cut for his maiden National Para Athletics Championships, he won the gold in 200m and silver in 400m and 800m. He said he was felicitated by the state government and given a cash reward of Rs20,000.
“That was the first and last time I got any support from them,” says Hussain, 25. “Since then, I have won gold in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 (National Para Athletics Championship). I get a medal and a certificate of participation at the national games, that’s it.”
At the 2016 Senior National Para Athletics Championship in Panchkula in March, he streaked to gold in the 100m in the T12 disability classification category in 11.44 seconds. The cut-off mark for the 2016 Rio Paralympics in the category was 11.9; the bronze medal winner at the Games (Thomas Ulbricht) clocked a time of 11.39. We don’t know how good Hussain could have been, because he was never given the chance.
“I got letters of invitation from four-five international tournaments, but I couldn’t go to any because I did not have the money. I am still very upset that I wasn’t even given that chance,” says Hussain.
For every gilt-edged success story for India at the Paralympics, there are hundreds of those, like Hussain, who didn’t make it. And the buck should stop with the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI).
Since it was established in 1992, under the name of the Physically Handicapped Sports Federation of India, the body has been suspended four times. It is crippled with the plethora of problems that affect most sports bodies in the country—corruption, mismanagement, apathy and nepotism. Things came to a breaking point in April 2015, when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) suspended the PCI for keeping the athletes in abject conditions during the National Para Athletics Championships in Ghaziabad, near Delhi.
“Organizers spent money on making big posters and banners,” says Abhirupa Kar, president of the Civilian Welfare Foundation, a non-profit that campaigned against the PCI. “But they kept athletes in an under-construction building. The female athletes were kept with no security, in rooms that did not have locks. The toilets were filthy.”
The PCI said it didn’t have the funds; the Union sports ministry said a “grant of Rs401.84 lakhs has been provided to PCI in 2014-15....” Following the suspension, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) took over the reins. The IPC lifted the suspension in May, mainly to allow Indian athletes to take part in the Rio Paralympics. But it added that the country needed to undertake “major reforms”.
The fact is, and Hussain is an example, that every step of the para athletes’ journey is mired in uncertainty and apathy.
“We have won medals at the Paralympics right since 1972 (Heidelberg, when Murlikant Petkar won gold in the men’s 50m freestyle 3 disability classification category),” says R. Satyanarayana, who coached Mariyappan Thangavelu and Varun Bhati to a historic gold-bronze haul in the T42 high jump in Rio. “But as far as the Paralympic movement goes, it is only a newborn baby in India. To begin with, there is very little awareness about para sports,” he says. “Whatever problems able-bodied athletes face, for para athletes they are doubled. The wheelchair and visually impaired athletes are worse off because the lack of infrastructure means they are dependent on someone. We have to understand that most of the para athletes come from the lower economy bracket, and they can’t go for training on their own because they cannot use public transport. These are small things that play a big role.”
Satyanarayana, who is from Bengaluru, believes that the lack of coaches means that most athletes don’t get proper guidance on which sports discipline to choose vis-à-vis their particular disability.
“The Central government is now providing some very good facilities for para sports, but at the state level they are nearly non-existent,” says Devendra Jhajharia, who scripted history when he won his second gold medal at the Paralympics—in the men’s javelin throw F46 at Rio.
“There are stadiums in China and some other Asian countries that are wheelchair-friendly. In India, in most stadiums they don’t even have toilets that can be used by the wheelchair athletes,” he adds.
Apart from the elite athletes, who now have access to SAI’s new Centre of Excellence, in Gandhinagar, the rest continue to train with coaches and at facilities that are generic and shared by able-bodied athletes.
“There is also the need for specialized equipment, nutrition, supplements,” says Devika Malik, the daughter of Deepa Malik, who became the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic medal when she claimed silver in the women’s shot put F53. A para athlete herself, Devika co-founded the Wheeling Happiness Foundation with her mother in 2014 to support athletes and counsel people with disabilities.
There are also a few things the athletes are completely reliant on the national body for. According to IPC regulations, athlete licences need to be renewed every year. A country is allotted a requested number of licences, which are an athlete’s passport to international competitions.
“The PCI has in the past failed to secure these for the athletes because they simply did not submit (these) for renewal or sent the entries late,” says Kar.
Also, athletes have to participate in international events to get their disability classification, which is assessed by a three-member panel, because India does not have the technical prowess for this. International competitions are also their only stage to make the cut for major events like the Paralympics or world championships.
Suyash Jadhav, who was India’s only entry in swimming at the recent Rio Games, explains just how difficult it is.
“My first international meet was the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) World Games in Bengaluru in 2009,” he recalls. Jadhav, 16 then, had won a bronze medal in his debut competition. “But I wasn’t given a chance for the next six years. There is a lot of favouritism that goes on during these selections, and at that time I did not know whom to take the grievances to.”
The PCI has the final say in who will be sent for international meets, and Jadhav, a double amputee, found himself out of favour for six years despite being a consistent performer in the nationals.
Determined to make it to the Rio Games, he spent from his own pocket to participate at the IWAS World Games in Sochi, South Korea, that were held from 26 September-2 October last year. He won the silver medal in the 50m butterfly in the S7 category and also qualified for the Rio Paralympics. “I somehow managed to raise about Rs2 lakh for the trip,” he says.
Once he had made the cut for Rio, SAI took him under its wing and gave him the financial support he needed for training and exposure trips.
“The fact is that 90% of our athletes struggle for funding to enter international competitions,” admits Satyanarayana. Budding athletes have to do all the legwork and achieve a certain standard on their own before they come on to the national radar and find funding. In the case of Thangavelu, he was already clearing world-beating heights by the time he got some support.
“There are various filters that are used by either PCI or SAI,” Satyanarayana says. “For example, when I first saw Mariyappan in 2013, he made a jump of 1.75m. The gold-medal winner at the London Paralympics in that same event had jumped 1.74m. So his talent and potential were obvious. We were able to get funding for him, the government granted about Rs30 lakh for him. It is more difficult to get funding for visually impaired or wheelchair-bound athletes because they can’t go alone, they have to be sent with helpers, which means the costs are doubled.”
“It is a vicious circle,” says Devika. “New talents in the field find it very difficult. They don’t have the backing, so how do they yield a result and prove themselves?”
There is also disparity in the way state para bodies work. As in other sporting disciplines, Haryana remains the most active body in para sports. It is followed by Delhi and Karnataka. In the 2016 National Para Athletics Championships, Haryana swept the table with a medal haul of 163 (65 gold). Delhi was second with 77 medals (28 gold).
Haryana is known to award Rs3 lakh to its gold medallists, Rs2 lakh to silver medallists and Rs1 lakh to the bronze winners. At the other end of the spectrum are dormant bodies like West Bengal, which don’t even hold token felicitation functions for their medal winners.
Athletes like Jhajharia and Farman Basha, who finished fourth in men’s powerlifting in Rio, believe that greater media coverage and awareness about the Paralympics has brought in the money for the cream of the crop.
“It used to be much worse,” recalls Basha. “I have been in this sport for 20 years. Earlier, we got absolutely no support from anyone. We had to finance our own tours, training. No one knew that the Paralympics was on, no one in the media spoke about it. With SAI coming in, things are looking up. This time, I got an extended training stint in Malaysia before the Games.”
India sent its largest contingent for the Paralympics this time: 19 athletes. Four of them came back with medals, a fantastic success rate. The athletes have shown how far they can go with just a little faith and support. But it will take a concerted effort from everyone concerned to ensure that their march does not end up as mere footprints in the sand.