His feat almost went unnoticed

The paralympic swimmer clinched the bronze in the 50m freestyle, in the S9 category, finishing in a time of 27.48s — a personal best and a National record. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

As governments tripped over one another to congratulate India's medal winners at the Commonwealth Games, one veritably historic feat almost went unnoticed. For Prasanta Karmakar, the country's first medallist in aquatics at any edition of the Games, it came as no surprise.

“People look at us as disabled persons,” he said. “So our achievements will never be treated on a par with those of other (able-bodied) athletes.”

The paralympic swimmer clinched the bronze in the 50m freestyle, in the S9 category, finishing in a time of 27.48s — a personal best and a National record. The accomplishment needs to be put into perspective. Earlier, on the same day, by simply qualifying for the 50m butterfly final, Virdhawal Khade became the first Indian swimmer to make it that far in the Games. Khade eventually finished seventh.

It hurt, Karmakar admitted, that recognition for his feats was not as readily forthcoming as for those of other able-bodied athletes. “They have achieved something for the country; so have I. But there isn't even a quota for paralympic sportspersons.”

Such a seeming snub from the State government in his native West Bengal precipitated his move to Haryana, in 2006, after he won a bronze at the Asian Games. “Other medallists from the State were awarded plots and cash. But I was treated differently for some reason.”

Since his first international meet in 2003, there has been a steady inflow of medals, with National and Asian records to boot.

Karmakar's financial difficulties, despite being widely documented, have been scarcely alleviated. At the International German Swimming Championships for the Disabled in Berlin, in June this year, he nearly missed participating after he failed to get hold of a costume in time. “It cost 160 euros and was available only in Hamburg, for which the travel expenses cost another 130 euros. I had nowhere near such money, and it was imperative that I took part in order to qualify for next year's World Championships. ”

With support from GoSports Foundation, he managed a costume and finished the event with yet another medal. “This is where the federation should step in; but they aren't doing anything to help us,” he bemoans, citing another such instance. “At the (IPC Swimming) World Championships in the Netherlands (Eindhoven, August 2010), we were not even given T-shirts. Our hotel reservations weren't done. We landed in Amsterdam early in the morning, and were able to check into a hotel only at 4 in the evening. And we had to race the next morning,” he sighed.

After renowned coach Nihar Ameen took him under his wings in 2008, Karmakar moved to Bangalore, where he continues to train. His immediate focus is the Asian Games in Guangzhou, where he expects to win another medal, with one in the London Olympics a distant, yet plausible dream. The long-term future, though, remains unresolved. “I have begged so far and survived on handouts. Once I stop swimming, nobody will remember who Prasanta Karmakar is.”

At a reception for medallists after the Games, he told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh much the same thing. “I told him that disabled sportsmen needed a separate quota for jobs. How was I going to fill my stomach after my retirement? I could hardly eat my medal.”