19 medals in Paralympics offer India a chance to dream and act

The nation returned with a rich haul of 19 medals from the Tokyo Paralympics. And the way forward is to build an infrastructure that accommodates the needs of persons with disabilities.

Hearty congratulations: Indian medallists from Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games share the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence in New Delhi.   -  AFP

Cash awards running into crores, innumerable felicitations, dozens of invites from celebrities wanting a share of the joy — the 19 medallists from the Tokyo Paralympics have been busier than ever. “I feel like a celebrity, a star,” para-badminton gold medallist Pramod Bhagat says.

That a four-time World champion like Bhagat, an Arjuna awardee, is made to feel like a ‘celebrity only after a Paralympics gold aptly summarises the popularity of para-sports in India.

But will these 19 medals help change the future of para-sports in India?

When Devendra Jhajharia won a gold medal in javelin at the Athens Games, it was a one-off success with a short shelf-life of popularity.

READ: Success in Paralympics - A turnaround for disability rights movement?

Paralympic Committee of India president Deepa Malik believes the turnaround started in 2015 when athletes with disabilities were included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which funds and facilitates training and nutrition requirements of the elite athletes. Deepa Malik was also a beneficiary of TOPS when she won the silver medal in shot put at the Rio Paralympics. India won two gold medals, a silver, and a bronze in Rio.


 

Discipline Number of athletes ACTC (Annual Calendar for Training and Competitions) fundsTOPS 
Para archery  Rs. 1,27,13,563 Rs. 75,28,814 

Para athletics*

(one athlete received Rs. 2,10,000 from Khelo India.)  

24 Rs. 4,12,75,066 Rs. 3,23,47,655
Para badminton Rs. 65,58,127 Rs. 1,27,22,735 
Para canoeing Rs. 5,05,384 Rs. 50,000 
Para powerlifting Rs. 39,68,195 Nil 
Para shooting 10 Rs. 3,40,69,191 Rs. 1,07,02,827 
Para swimming Rs. 37,84,024 Rs. 1,00,000 
Para table tennis Rs. 5,03,032 Rs. 11,46,514 
Para taekwondo Nil Rs. 3,07,875 

 

“The required push was given by the Prime Minister with inclusive policies. When para-athletes got absorbed into the TOPS from 2015, things became a little more streamlined. The 2016 medals gave us confidence. They have selected a woman who is a Paralympian with a career of 15 years as the president (of PCI), this shows the federation has become athlete-centric. The athletes’ voice becomes strong, sensitisation happens, and efforts are on for open communication with the athletes. There is a positive atmosphere and I think parasports will not just fade away,” Malik says.

Deepthi Bopaiah, executive director of GoSports Foundation, attributes the success to the collaborative work of all the stakeholders involved in athlete development. “There’s been a lot of effort to get these results. And the work has been happening for the last decade. The change has primarily happened since Rio 2016 and one of the biggest reasons is the collaboration – SAI, Sports Ministry’s TOPS, private foundations have been working together. Credit also to former Sports minister Kiren Rijiju who ensured that stakeholders work together in the lead up to the Olympics and Paralympics,” she says.

Plan for the future: Paralympic Committee of India chief Deepa Malik is all smiles, celebrating Bhavina Patel’s silver medal in Women's Singles Class 4 table tennis event at the Tokyo Paralympics. “These medals have come breath of fresh air. They have become a representation of great teamwork when everybody worked in sync with an athlete-centric approach. India can very easily become a super powerhouse of sports when things align in a perfect manner,” Malik says.   -  PTI

 

“A huge amount of credit has to go to corporate India for funding. IndusInd Bank was one of the first partners that came forward to support the parasport. And then Sony Pictures came on board. Apart from the CSR funds, they spent marketing funds to create a theme and anthem before the Paralympics. All of this makes a difference. And I think those are all important milestones for all of this to come together,” she adds.

“A lot of athletes with disabilities are already training abroad, best equipment is made available to us so we get the best training. There are processes like Khelo India, TOPS , SAI funds that have helped immensely. The medals will play a big role in motivating people to work harder. I hope we can double the tally next time. We have started thinking like China in terms of Olympic preparations. They are setting up facilities and funds are expected to increase. It is the best phase for athletes now,” Bhagat says.

Padmini Chennapragada, a disability sports researcher and a trained physiotherapist, though, doesn’t want to read too much into the 19 medals.

“From 2004 (Jhaharia’s gold) to 19 medals is definitely a big leap. But when you look at it, this is just madness. People fail to understand what the Paralympic movement is. In a country like India, the focus is on the mega event, but the point of Paralympics or any other disability sports event is that the person with a disability is treated the same as a person without disabilities. These events have evolved because of the disability rights movement globally. Yes, they are getting visibility. The entire country is knowing that people with disabilities can win medals. It is opening the thought that if a person doesn’t have a hand or a leg, they can still play a sport like badminton or archery. So maybe that is happening, but that is happening only for Indians who are keenly observing and learning from this. But is it a mass movement? We are talking about bringing sports as a tool for development. In India, that is still not the reality,” she says.

“This Federation does not even have many functioning state units. The 54 people who went to Tokyo are not even a small percentage of the people who can compete rightfully for that spot. When a youngster from a remote area says he/she also wants to play, we don’t have a system to put them back. So, when the democratic process is not happening, which is leading to that podium finish, I'm not celebrating any of those 19 medals.” Chennapragada says.

READ: Fitness, confidence, self-belief - Jhajharia’s success mantra

The Paralympic Committee of India has been suspended by the international governing body as well as the Sports Ministry multiple times over the years due to corruption as well as infighting. In 2016, PCI’s suspension was temporarily revoked mainly to let India compete in the Rio Paralympics. PCI was also suspended in 2019 by the Sports Ministry for failing to adhere to the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011. The suspension was lifted in February 2020, just a few months before the original schedule of the Tokyo Paralympics, after the election of new board members, including current president Deepa Malik. Even so, multiple court cases are pending against the PCI.

It is going to be a long and difficult path ahead in the process of making India a force in the world of disability sports.

“The focus is now to create a new set of talent pool. Talent identification is very important, and we are working very hard towards that. The state bodies will have to become more active in the districts and conduct competitions. Otherwise, we are just moving with the current pool of athletes. We need to identify more sports that can be easily introduced in the school curriculum. We need to increase female participation for gender equality,” Malik says.

Heartbreak: Vinod Kumar was denied a bronze medal after his competitors registered a protest about his classification as F52 after the end of the discus throw competition. Kumar paid the price for India not having a single IPC-qualified classifier. Reuters   -  PTI

 

Another major challenge is India doesn’t have a single IPC-qualified classifier.

Tek Chand, who took over as the flag bearer after Mariyappan Thangavelu was forced to isolate after a Covid scare, had trained and qualified for the javelin throw event in the F54 category, but his classification was changed to F55 less than a week before his event and he eventually competed in shot put as there was no javelin throw event in his class. Vinod Kumar was denied a bronze medal after his competitors registered a protest about his classification as F52 after the end of the discus throw competition. After an assessment of his disability, he was found ineligible and has been marked as “classification not confirmed’. He will not be able to compete in international events till he is given the classification.

These situations could have been prevented if India had IPC-qualified classifiers in the country. Athletes are assigned a classification after assessment by a panel of classifiers (at least two) who are either physicians, physiotherapists, coaches, or sports scientists who have been certified by the governing body. The classification indicates the type and extent of their disability, and the athletes are grouped in events accordingly.

“We don't have a single IPC qualified classifier. We need more and more coaches to understand parasports and get into the ecosystem. We must increase the volunteer base; the corporates and their CSR initiatives should get people to volunteer. We need more technicians, more technical people to know how to manage a person on a wheelchair,” the PCI president Malik admits.

List of Indian medallists at the 2020 Paralympics

“When PCI was under one of its many suspensions in 2015, the then SAI Director General Injeti Srinivas sorted out the issue with the IPC and subsequently prepared a report in which he mentioned clearly that India is in dire need of classifiers. Why hasn’t anything been done yet?” questions Chennapragada.

The award-reward structure may also need a relook.

Archer Jyoti Baliyan was added to TOPS only two months before the Paralympics and after her qualification. Many para-athletes were added to the TOPS roster after they qualified for the Paralympics.

“I know all of us are getting support once we perform at a big platform. What about the phase we are going through when we are about to perform? That is the stage where we need those funds and access to the experts. It could be an exposure trip, it could be nutrition, it could be strength and conditioning, or could even be a competition. Not all can afford to go to 10 competitions in a year. But if we get that support, we can put on better performance,” says para-swimmer Niranjan Mukundan.

Jyoti, for her part, wishes for more exposure trips and competitions. “I got nervous in Tokyo because of lack of competitive experience. We have an average of one international tournament a year. I would also like our preparatory camps to be longer,” she says.

“We should be able to compete once in three months, that’s going to enhance our performance,” Mukundan adds.

“Treat us as normal human beings. I would ask, why can't we endorse a brand? We're going to reach out to a wider audience, people are going to know who we are. And then people will start supporting us. You could even inspire someone who's having a disability,” he says.

Considering the lack of competition, and the periodic review of TOPS beneficiaries, will the funding truly prove beneficial for those who need it the most? The current TOPS development group (July 2021 roster), which identifies and supports youngsters, supports 254 athletes. Disabled athletes don’t find a place on the list. There are 55 para-athletes who are currently supported in the TOPS elite list and most of them are also funded by not-for-profit organisations like GoSports Foundation, Olympic Gold Quest among others.

READ: Avani Lekhara - On target in Tokyo, sights set on Paris

The way forward is to build an infrastructure that accommodates the needs of persons with disabilities. “How many rooms in a hotel are usually wheelchair accessible? How do you branch out to team events or host more competitions when the ecosystem is not ready for it? The plan is to boost infrastructure and not just spot talent,” Malik says.

A Centre of Excellence Para Centre in Gandhinagar is expected to be ready by 2022; the SAI centres across India facilitates training of disabled athletes and a training academy in Lucknow is dedicated to para-badminton which has already helped India win four medals in Tokyo.

But India still has a long way to go, and the 19 medals offer a chance for the nation to dream and to act.