Paralympics: The Rise Of Phoenixes

Paralympics: The Rise Of Phoenixes

"I no longer feared the darkness once I knew the phoenix in me would rise from the ashes." - William C. Hannan.

Tokyo 2020 Paralympics were recently over and had one of the best viewership this year. India had sent its largest contingent ever of 54 para-athletes competing in 9 different sporting disciplines. At the end of the event, India's medal tally stands at 19 medals with five gold, eight silver and six bronze. This is the first time India's medal tally reached double-digit figures in the Paralympics. A historic gold and silver finish by Krishna Nagar and Noida's District Magistrate Suhas Yathiraj in the debut sport Badminton capped off the country's remarkable Paralympics and Olympics game show. 

History of Paralympics:

Back during World War II, it was believed in the U.K. that when one was physically impaired, they should be left to die as they possibly have nothing more to contribute to society. Therefore, they might as well be allowed to slip away. One German-British neurologist, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who managed to escape the Nazis, was not okay with this notion and wanted to do something for the war veterans who sacrificed so much for the country without a second thought. 

According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), that was precisely when the Paralympic Games began to take shape. In 1948 Guttman organised an archery competition for wheelchair athletes known as the Stokes Mandeville Games. Gradually it started gaining attention, and after Dutch veterans joined the games four years later, it went international. Finally, in 1960 they were established as the Paralympic games and held for every four years ever since alongside the Olympic Games. The Olympic and Paralympic have been taking place at the same city and venue since 1988 due to an agreement between the IPC and the International Olympic Committee.  

India made its debut in the Paralympic games back in 1968 with a contingent of 10 athletes. However, India scored its first medal in the 1972 games, when Murlikant Petkar won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle swimming event by setting a world record of 37.331 seconds. That was India’s first individual gold medal. India’s best-ever performance was in the 2020 games, where an all-time high of 54 athletes participated and won 19 medals (5 gold, eight silver, six bronze) in total.  

India’s medal tally history at Paralympics: 

The Paralympic games are usually not that highlighted compared to the Olympics, but it is a commendable achievement to win a medal in the Paralympics. The athletes deserve honour and praise in equal amounts, if not more, than those from the Olympic games. Overcoming one’s physical disability and finding worth where it lacks the most is one of the most vital things a person can do in life. The number of medals won by India in the Paralympic games has been minimal compared to the Olympics. This changed in the 2020 games when the Indian Paralympic contingent scored almost three times the medals of the Olympic delegation and got placed in the 24th position worldwide, making India proud. 

Of the 19 medals won by India, there was one Avani Lekhara who got 2 of them - a gold and a bronze in rifle shooting, becoming the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic Gold medal as well as the first Indian woman to win multiple medals in a single Paralympic Games. 

The Games did not gain much traction, to begin with. India did not participate in the 1976 and 1980 games after their singular medal in 1972. Right after that, in the 1984 games, India won 4 medals which were their joint-highest tally before this year’s 19 medal haul. From 1988 to 2008, there was a medal drought where India managed to win only 2 – gold and a bronze in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Since then, India has never been medalless. This year’s massive haul ensures a brighter future for the Indian contingent in the upcoming Paralympics because now the athletes have something to look up to and get inspired from. 

The perspective of Paralympics 

"Olympic medals have always outshone the Paralympic medals" – This is something that we have proved over the years as our Paralympic champions have gained almost no recognition for their incredible feats. 

Everyone is well-versed with athletes who make a fashion statement and stand out due to the extreme popularity they have gained until now. Still, when it comes to medal winners, especially the ones from the Paralympic Games, most of us are unaware and uninformed. This is a sad but painstakingly true reality that needs to change. 

When Team India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup, people celebrated on the streets, burst crackers and shared sweets. When Devendra Jhajharia won another gold medal and broke the World record that he had created twelve years back, very few of us realized it. Unfortunately, his win might still not be known to many; thanks to social media, Devendra Jhajharia’s victory received some limelight after Neeraj Chopra’s Gold medal.

Even in cricket when India beat England by 36 runs in the T20 Physical Disability Cricket World Series organised by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in 2019, BCCI had honoured the team with a ‘dummy cheque’ of Rs. 65 lakhs. The players who had no other sources of income during the Covid-19 pandemic did not receive the prize even two months after the game was played. This shows how much importance their games are actually given irrespective of the podium it is being played at. All these instances clearly show how some sports. and some categories under those sports are highly being overshadowed by other popular games like Men’s Cricket. 

Although due to growing social media influence recently, things have been seeming to change and hopefully will get even better eventually in the future. People have started recognizing these champions, and so has our government, and it was possible only through our collective incentive. Section 3 of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 provisions for Equality and Non-discrimination towards persons with disabilities. Section 30 of the same act has laid out even more elaborate points to encourage the participation of the Physically Disabled such as:

  • Recognising and their inclusion in the schemes and programmes related to the development of sporting talent.
  • Restructuring and Redesigning the infrastructure to aid their inclusion in sporting activities.
  • Develop technologies that aid in enhancing the potential of the specially-abled.
  • Provide multi-sensory essentials that encourage the participation of all persons with disabilities.
  • allocate funds to develop the state of art facilities for the physically disabled.

To ensure the proper utilization of the Government Funds under the “Khelo India” scheme in 2017, three sports bodies were recognised to take up the responsibilities of promotion of sports, conduct training and hold competitions which were:

  • Para Olympics Committee of India (PCI)  – Physically disabled persons. 
  • Special Olympics Bharat (SOB) – Mentally challenged persons. 
  • All India Sports Council of Deaf (AISCD) for Deaf and Dumb individuals.

After this year's achievement of 19 medals, we can hope for several future aspirants for the Paralympic games. Our responsibility is to make sure that they never feel down irrespective of the result or colour of their medal. That is the only way to give them the respect and recognition they deserve while encouraging the next generation of athletes to step up. 

Prize money awarded to the athletes

The support from the government towards the para-athletes was praiseworthy. The Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs announced the prize money for para-athletes as 75 lakhs for Gold, 50 lakhs for silver and 30 lakhs for bronze. The payment scheme for the Olympic champions was the same.

The Tale of Resilience, Grit and Courage 

Avani Lekhara:

The 19-year-old, who was the flagbearer of India at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics, managed to bring back two medals for the nation, one of them being gold in the women's 10m air rifle standing (SH1). Her score of 249.6 equalled the world record and broke the Paralympic record, making her the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics. She also won a bronze Women's 50m rifle 3 positions (SH1).

In 2012, Avani was just 12 years old when a car accident took place and injured her spinal cord, which led to her losing control of her body, waist down. She went from being an active chirpy girl to shutting herself in her room for days on end. Her father decided to nudge her towards sports to act as a medium for restoring Avani's social life, but Avani had different plans. After trying out many sports, she finally settled down to shooting, and nothing stopped her after that. She was inspired by the former gold medallist Abinav Bindra and always dreamt of winning a Paralympic gold for the nation. 

Pramod Bhagat:

It was a debut year for badminton at the Paralympics. The reigning world champion Pramod Bhagat strode his way into history by becoming India's first-ever para-badminton gold medalist in the Paralympics.

Pramod was just five years old when he was affected by polio. It is in a controlled situation now, but that wasn't the case a few decades back. Polio is one such disease that directly affects the spinal cord and paralyses the hands and legs. Unfortunately, this paralysed his left leg.

Despite this, nothing stopped him from achieving heights. In 2002 Pramod was playing a district level tournament which was not primarily for para-athletes; all the top abled players participated in this; still, Pramod won the contest. This made him believe that he could one day be at the pinnacle and represent the country.

Vinod Kumar:

Indian discus thrower Vinod Kumar lost a bronze medal in the F52 category at the Paralympics after being judged ineligible for a disability classification assessment by the competition committee. His legs were severely injured during a training exercise in Leh as part of the Border Security Force. He became a para-athlete after recovering from that. He was classified as an F52 para-athlete in 2019 and was again re-evaluated and cleared to compete by the IPC on 22 August 2021.

Sunil Jain, one of the founder trustees of disability accessibility group Astha, said

There appears to be a big communication gap between para-athletes and the governing body. The PCI failed to inform Kumar about his position sufficiently. That also shows the need for IPC to rethink its global para-athletes' classification processes to avoid the ire of upset fans and those unfamiliar with the intricacies.

Unfortunately, Vinod Kumar had to lose out on the bronze due to certain technical misconceptions. Despite being injured, his journey and spirit of playing the sport at their highest level will undoubtedly stand as an inspiration to many.

Sumit Antil:

Along with the Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, another person won gold for the nation at the Paralympics but unfortunately couldn't get enough limelight as his counterpart. Sumit Antil won gold in the F64 Men's javelin throw at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics after throwing the javelin at a distance of 68.55m. He broke the world record with his first attempt of 66.95m but was not satisfied with it and went on to break his own record twice and finally settled for 66.55m. 

He was into sports from an early age, and his favourite sport was wrestling. He wanted to be a wrestler. But unfortunately, on 5 January 2015, he lost his left leg in a motorbike accident. He was devastated by it, and it took a long time for him to accept the reality. Even after the accident, he did not want to give up sports. In July 2017, he was informed about Paralympics by a fellow para-athlete named Rajkumar, who belonged to the same village, and he decided to walk on this path. It was a journey filled with pain and patience. However, he did not quit.

Interestingly, Sumit has competed against Neeraj Chopra as well. Despite being a para-athlete, he stood 7th in the Indian Grand Prix because he believed that an accident could not make him weak or incompetent.

Suhas Lalinkere Yathiraj:

Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj clinched the silver medal at Paralympics badminton in Tokyo. With that, the 38-year-old district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar (Noida) also became the first-ever IAS officer to have participated and won a medal in the Paralympics.

He graduated from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in Computer Science and Engineering branch in 2004 by scoring First class with Distinction. 

For the last one and a half years, he had been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic management in Gautam Buddh Nagar since his appointment in the western UP district on 30 March 2020.

Before his departure to Tokyo, Suhas, when asked about his badminton practice and work as D.M., had told the media,

 "I practice from 10 pm for two hours after all the day's work is over. I have been managing my game and administrative duties this way for around six years now."

 Suhas said his professional journey started in 2016 while he was the D.M. of Azamgarh district in eastern U.P., and a badminton championship was organised there.

His dedication towards both academics and sports equally is a commendable feat to achieve.

The Transition:

Paralympics has always been something that hasn't got the limelight and appreciation it deserved. There was a bias for the Olympics over the Paralympics from both the Government as well as people. But, over time, the situation has started to change. For Tokyo Paralympics, the Government has come forward and made efforts to nurture the talent and prepare the para-athletes for the big stage. 

Javelin thrower Sumit Antil, who broke three world records on the way to Gold, quotes

"In 2018, some para-athletes also got a chance to train in Finland with other athletes like Neeraj Chopra, and that was a huge mental motivation for us. We knew that we were being treated the same as the able-bodied athletes. I got a chance to compete in Italy, France, Tunisia in the last three years. It also made me understand the different conditions, a thing which will also help in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympics," 

The Sports Authority of India and NGO Go Sports Foundation-funded Sumit Antil prosthetic blade, equipment and biomechanics support worth 7 lakh Rupees. Similar to the Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, Sumit Antil was also awarded six crore Rupees for his Gold.

Silver medallist discus thrower Yogesh Kathuniya quoted,

 "Apart from facilities, governments now see para-athletes' achievements the same way as normal athletes in terms of cash awards and jobs. This has added to our confidence." 

The Central Government's flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) was announced for the para-athletes, through which the Government spent around 8.2 crore Rupees on para-sports from 2018-19 to 2021-22.

Avani Lekhara made history by becoming the first woman to win a gold at the Paralympics. The Government made efforts to ensure that she had no obstacles for her practice in the lockdown. The Sports Ministry funded the installation of a computerised digital target at her home and took care of her air rifle and accessories expenses.

Public-private partnerships also played a role. From 2008, GoSports Foundation was affiliated with 11 of the 19 para-athletes for Rio 2016 and continued its work ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Conclusion: 

If luck takes something away from you it gives you something in return, the power to see things with a new perspective. 

Rising from an unfortunate situation on which they had no control over, to representing the country at the highest stage is an extraordinary feat to achieve. Each para-athlete has a story to tell, a story that can inspire millions. Their resilience in life teaches us to look at life from a different perspective. It is great to see the support from the government towards the para-athletes. Tokyo Paralympics and Olympics mark the beginning of a sporting era, a place where a person wouldn't be afraid to pick sports as a Career. 

Team Monday Morning congratulates the winners of the Tokyo Paralympics and wishes them luck for the future. 

Design Credits:- Ashit Kumar Sahu

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