Not many of us were religious about watching the Paralympics held in Rio (Brazil) only a few weeks after the end of the Summer Olympics. I can perhaps reel off a number of names – all stars who took Rio by storm, but none of them differently abled athletes.
Earlier this month, four Indian Olympians won medals. Two of them were gold medals, and one of them, a world record. Mariyappan Thangavelu won the high-jump event on September 9th – and many of us watched it as a gif or a video being shared madly on the web after he won it. None of us actually woke up to watch it early in the morning. It was an enthralling experience, even to experience the kind of emotions running through Thangavelu as he celebrated with the energy of a little boy. In the same event, Varun Singh Bhati won a bronze medal, giving India an unprecedented two medals in the space of five minutes.
Five days after they won India’s first medals of the Paralympics, Devendra Jhajharia trended on Twitter – this little-known athlete, who had set the world record in the Men’s Javelin Throw on more than one occasion, and the winner 12 years ago in the Athens’ Olympics (that long ago) – for setting the new world record in the event, and winning the gold again. Arguably, that made him India’s greatest singular Olympian. Yet, many of us were hearing about him for the first time. He is a veteran champion, but many of us actually know about Neeraj Chopra, the abled Javelin thrower, the teenager who failed to qualify for India a month ago.
Deepa Malik won the silver medal in the Women’s Shot-Put event, and soon, everyone was talking about how the Paralympians “outgunned” India’s able athletes, who won a disappointing two medals a month ago despite sending more than a 100 athletes. The Paralympic team of India had a delegation of a mere 19 athletes in 5 spots, out of which three came back with a medal, with a further four finishing in fourth place. a
This isn’t the best stance to take. While the Paralympians did their country proud with a fantastic performance, to praise them at the cost of the many others who failed to come home with a medal only demonstrates the attitude that has been costing India a much-needed sporting culture. It’s okay to crack jokes for the first few minutes, but then to go on and write op-eds and ‘expert’ opinions about this performance, always in context of the able delegation, is a self-defeating thing to do. The infrastructure and emphases put on academics in this country automatically rules out the possibility of world competition in many sports (except for cricket). Perhaps it is wrong to blame the athletes – they do everything they can in their limited capacity and guidance – but instead turn one’s attention towards the powers above.
It may also be wise to look at how disabled Indians, a number that is very high given the burgeoning population and lack of education, often turn to physical activities and sports at a very early age to complete an integration into regular society. While many of us consider it a victory to even be surviving in society with disabilities, these people go a step further and remind the world how the human mind is perhaps the strongest muscle in the body. Mariyappan’s story, for instance, is very similar to the tons of athletes who qualified for the Rio Olympics against all odds – he grew up in poverty in Tamil Nadu under a single mother, got educated and rose as just “another abled person” would. That his disability was a result of a man-made accident – a truck ran over his leg – made him the person he became eventually, and inculcated in him an attitude that our babus at the top would do well to emulate. There is nothing more dangerous than a cornered tiger, as we all have recognized over the years, and many of these athletes were cornered early on in life – having to start at a level that already had them tough as nails just in order to be ‘normal.’
So, 2016 should be looked at the year in which India had 6 medal-winning Olympians. Not two. Not four.