India’s para athletes still await their moment in the sun

The country’s best-ever medal haul in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games brought recognition for the specially-abled athletes, but a lot more still needs to be done

Nishad Kumar of India competes in the men's high jump - T47 final at the Olympic Stadium during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan; (PTI Photo)

India’s best finish in paralympics yet has been the Tokyo 2020 Games last August, at 24th place with a medal haul of 19 (five gold, eight silver and six bronze). It brought into focus the talent of our specially-abled athletes and created an environment for the inclusion of para sports in the bigger scheme of things in Indian sports.

One of the high points of India’s performance was the gold won by 20-year-old shooter Avani Lekhara in the women’s 10m air rifle event and a bronze in the women’s 50m rifle event. Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win a paralympics gold medal as well as the first Indian woman to win multiple medals in a single paralympic games. The Olympics have always overshadowed the Paralympic Games, but that wasn’t the case in 2021.

That major brands, such as Puma, have stepped in to support para athletes points to a slow but definite change of mindset. Among the 18 athletes signed by the sports brand in 2021 are three para athletes—Lekhara, Bhavina Patel (table tennis) and Ekta Bhayan (discuss throw). Last year, Lekhara was named brand ambassador of the Rajasthan government’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ programme. At the 20th National Para Athletics Championship held in Bhubaneswar in March this year, a fourth of the estimated 1,000 athletes were women.

Better media coverage has also helped highlight the inspiring stories of para athletes overcoming personal challenges to make it big. There are athletes with limbs missing, spinal cord injuries, visual impairments, cerebral palsy and other kinds of limitations, but they all have overcome the odds with sheer talent and mental fortitude.

Deepa Malik is the first Indian woman to win a paralympics medal—a silver at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in shot put. Malik, who is also the first woman president of the Paralympic Committee of India, feels there is still a long way to go before Indian para athletes get their due. “Para sports needs to be perceived as mainstream sports, not charity sports for recreation of the specially-abled. Prime Minister Modi has said that the ‘New India@75’ envisions inclusion, accessibility and equality, and that’s what para athletes deserve. Our athletes should get a platform and a voice,” she says.

Vijay Lokapally, journalist and author of several sports books, welcomes the growing awareness about para sports in India. “It had been much neglected, but para sports has, of late, found deserving space in the media. Para athletes are now treated with respect and genuine affection. The success at the Tokyo Games last year made icons out of some of them,” he says.

Devendra Jhajharia, the first para athlete to be honoured with the Padma Shri in 2012, believes para sports has seen great transformation in India in the past few years. Jhajharia, who is also a recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (2017) and the Padma Bhushan (2022), recalls: “I had to invest my own funds to participate in the Athens Paralympics in 2004. But at the Tokyo Paralympics last year, I had access to the best facilities, such as a personal trainer, coach and physiotherapist. It all reflects the change.” He adds that the Indian government is providing a lot of support through programmes such as TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme). “This has motivated para athletes to work harder, and it helped India give its best performance yet in Paralympics in Tokyo.”

But a lot more needs to be done, and some of it is basic. As Jhajharia says: “Our sporting grounds should be para-friendly. Wheelchair accessibility should be sorted out. These requirements need to be looked into by state governments while planning and building stadiums.”

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