India’s paralympians rise from childhood taunts to gold-medal glory

When Devendra Jhajharia was 19 years old he was mocked by rival coaches: “Couldn’t you find an athlete with two hands in all of Rajasthan?”. On Thursday, he won a gold medal in the Paralympic Games, setting a new world record.
India's Devendra Jhajaria poses at the podium after receiving the gold medal for men's Javelin throw after setting a new world record at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lucas Uebel/Getty Images
India's Devendra Jhajaria poses at the podium after receiving the gold medal for men's Javelin throw after setting a new world record at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lucas Uebel/Getty Images

NEW DELHI // When Devendra Jhajharia was 19 years old and an aspiring javelin thrower, he got a taste of the challenges to come when he attended an inter-university athletics meeting in 2000.

A pair of rival coaches took one look at Jhajharia, turned to his coach, and sneered: “Couldn’t you find an athlete with two hands in all of Rajasthan?”

Jhajharia’s left arm ends near his elbow; he lost his left hand when he was eight after accidentally touching a live electrical wire.

But on Thursday, Jhajharia won a gold medal in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, setting a new world record when he hurled the javelin 63.97 metres.

Although taunted throughout his youth for being disabled, he was determined to “erase that adjective” and succeeded because of that, he said on Thursday.

Jhajharia was one of India’s four medallists at the Paralympic Games which ended on Saturday Sunday.

India sent 19 athletes to the Games, its largest-ever Paralympic contingent.

The team won two more medals than its 118-strong squad to the Olympics, which ended on August 21, and came in 42nd placeout of 159 participating countries. China, which won 237 medals, placed first.

India’s haul of medals was slim, but this was its best-ever performance at the Paralympics. The contingent’s success — especially relative to the Olympic team — made frontpage headlines in newspapers back home.

The success of the Paralympians has been tremendous, said Deepthi Bopaiah, the executive director of the GoSports Foundation, a Bangalore-based non-profit organisation that supports athletes in both Olympic and Paralympic disciplines.

“But if you’ve been following these medal-winners, it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Ms Bopaiah told The National over the phone from Rio de Janeiro. “They’ve all been ranking in the top three in their sports, and really, a gradual momentum has been building over [the] last couple of Paralympic games.”

India has traditionally been a difficult country for any athlete who is not a cricketer. Infrastructure is scant, money is perennially in shortage, government sports bodies are lethargic or corrupt, while audiences and the media expend nearly all their affections upon cricket.

Athletes in Paralympic disciplines have faced particularly hard times.

At the National Para-Athletics Championships in Ghaziabad last year, participants were not given water, their bathrooms were not cleaned, and wheelchair-bound athletes found that the venue had no ramps to help them get around.

The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), the government institution charged with selecting athletes to represent the country at the Paralympic Games, has also been ridden with internal squabbles and accusations of corruption. In April 2015, the PCI was suspended by the International Paralympic Committee; it was reinstated in June.

“There are a lot of gaps in the system,” Devika Malik, a former para-sprinter who co-founded Wheeling Happiness, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation that assists disabled people with material and psychological support.

Ms Malik, whose left side was paralysed after a motorcyclist hit her when she was one year old, competes less frequently now.

However, her mother Deepa, who has been in a wheelchair since developing spinal problems 16 years ago, is still an active athlete. She won a silver medal in shot put at Rio.

Her mother’s success is part of the reason Ms Malik said that, systemic problems notwithstanding, a slow and organic change is under way.

“There’s a greater awareness among the public about these sports,” she said. “And the government support is growing as well.”

Most crucially, Ms Malik said, private philanthropies and non-profit organisations such as GoSports have begun to fund Paralympic disciplines, supporting talented athletes who might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.

Of the 19 athletes in India’s Paralympic contingent in Rio, GoSports supported 11 in various ways. Pooja Rani, an archer, was training with outdated equipment, so GoSports bought her a better set. The high jumper Rampal Chahar, who could not find a coach in India, was sponsored by GoSports to train at a specialised coaching centre in Ukraine.

The money for GoSports’ athletes comes from two corporations: IndusInd Bank and Sony TV. These companies fund the athletes’ ambitions under the ambit of a 2013 corporate social responsibility law.

The law mandates that any firm with a net worth over 5 billion rupees, or a turnover of 10 billion rupees (Dh548.4 million), or a monthly profit of 50 million rupees, must spend 2 per cent of its average net profits on activities that benefit Indian society at large.

Such funding, Ms Bopaiah said, complements the increased interest shown by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government in funding the top athletes of the country.

“While they rely upon the government, we try to help the second and third tiers of athletes — the ones looking to qualify for big international meets,” she said.

Although Ms Bopaiah had anticipated some success at the Rio Paralympics, she said, “doing it and bringing a medal home is a different thing altogether”.

“To be able to perform on that day, under such pressure, is remarkable.”

Published: September 19, 2016 04:00 AM


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