Paralympics: Surmounting human limitations

The challenges that the athletes had to overcome at the Paralympics in Rio were tremendous. Yet, they were very inspiring.

Devendra Jhajharia won the gold medal, and that too with a World record throw of 63.97m, in the men's javelin F46 final at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.   -  AP

Deepa Malik of India in action in the women's shot put F53 final at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She won the silver medals.   -  AP

I began as a state-level tennis player, and aspired to be a champion in my sport for a short while. But somewhere along the way, I transitioned from a failed athlete to an MBA student, and ultimately into a reasonably successful banker. Having followed my heart and answered my calling, somehow, today, I find myself as the Executive Director of an organisation that implements the visions of Indian sporting legends like Rahul Dravid, Abhinav Bindra and Pullela Gopichand. What an unbelievably privileged position to be in!

I was sick of hearing from everyone around how India would never shine at the Olympics. One of the things we speak of a lot at the foundation is “sport for all” and to that end, we have always supported able-bodied and para-athletes, recognising no distinction between the achievements of both. A year ago, we began a unique initiative in response to an increasingly evident requirement, the Para Champions Programme, to seek to address the challenges faced by para-athletes in our ecosystem.

 

And so, I found myself in Rio at the Paralympics — the “parallel” Olympics that takes place two weeks after the Olympics at the same venues — with 11 members of the Indian contingent contributed by our own Programme! India has had medallists at the Paralympics in the past; the exploits of the reclusive Murlikant Petkar should be the stuff of lore back home. Why they are relatively unknown is a discussion for another day… I was also there to understand what a long way we had to go.

On my first day in Rio, I sought the blessings of Christ the Redeemer. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I like to believe that He has played his part in how our para-athletes redeemed Indian sport in the eyes of sport lovers back home! The fortnight that followed went by in a haze. I and my team back home worked across multiple time zones, as I attempted to figure out how I could be in a dozen places at once. With no Indian media on ground, there was so much to tell.

Not being a part of the official contingent, I had to manoeuvre my way around the Village and venues to meet the athletes. My general enthusiasm for people led me to interact with a kindly media director, who initially wondered why I was turning up every day to meet competitors outside of the Village! He took pity on me and, backing my desire to record the experiences of our athletes for posterity, assisted me with daily passes to the plaza. No words will ever express how grateful I am to him! I still had to send voice notes from the Village, have hurried conversations with my team in the cab on my way between the Village, the venues, and my hotel. Once I gained access to the Village, I lost no opportunity in documenting the athletes’ experiences in the form of photos, notes, video blogs…!

The Games began and the main stories have — thankfully — received coverage, but I’d like to highlight some of the lesser-known stories that have not received the attention due to them.

 

Archer Pooja stood out. A ragpicker’s daughter, she had trained on substandard equipment all her life. What a pity, we couldn’t get her better equipment earlier, giving her more time to train with it! Happily, for us, superstar Devendra Jhajharia made the best use of the equipment that we had been able to fund for him, utilising it in training as well as during his event to better his own world record, set 12 years ago! His life should be mandatory reading for all Indians, I thought, and quickly remembered that children in Rajasthan are now learning about his life as part of their Standard IV curriculum in school!

Sundar Singh Gurjar, one of the brightest Indian medal hopes, was right there and failed to report on time for his event. A lasting memory for me is trying to rush to his aid, minus accreditation, and looking on, as our appeal was rejected. An instance that calls for better athlete education and preparation, perhaps, with Gurjar missing the event he, presumably, had trained for over his entire sporting life.

Amit Saroha may have missed a bronze medal by a whisker, but triumphed through the fact that he has coached and mentored several of the Paralympians, including Dharambir Nain — his direct competitor in his own event!

Similar stories of inspiration abound, but I am now back in India, getting back to the drawing board. While the government and the Sports Authority of India have stepped up and backed the athletes phenomenally in recent months, we have a tremendously long way to go. Sample this: It costs individual athletes Rs. 3-4 lakh just to get classified into the category they must compete in, and none of these events are currently even conducted in India! There is so much to do, and we hope to make a significant progress. Our programme partners have played a huge role in helping us make the interventions we have been able to. The principal partner, IndusInd Bank, has pioneered an initiative titled “Jeet Ka Halla”, under which it also created a powerful video and anthem to celebrate the para-athletes. Media giant Sony Pictures Networks, an associate partner in our programme, purchased the rights to show the Games’ highlights to audiences back home. A first step towards a live telecast in four years time?

As I watched the swimming event kicking off the Games, it hit me what challenges these athletes had overcome to get to the highest level. A moment ago, I was tired, jetlagged, and irritable. Now, suddenly, I was choked, overwhelmed and blessed to witness such sporting achievement that transcends human limitations. I have come back with a lifelong resolve to never complain about trivialities. I am immensely thankful to GoSports Foundation for the opportunity afforded to me. There is work to be done and we have made a start. Our collective motto for years to come, courtesy our Para Champions: No excuses!