If you missed tonight’s Rio Paralympic Javelin action, it’s fair to say that you arguably missed one of the greatest achievements sport in India can offer. Devendra Jhajharia often termed as the ‘father of para-athletics in India,’ has done the unthinkable. Not only has the 35-year old won gold, but he’s done it by setting a new World record. Only twice has India ever managed this feat in an Olympic/Paralympic edition, the other one coming at the 2004 Athens Paralympics by none other than Devendra himself. A throw which sailed 63.97 m across the Maracana stadium today has officially made him the nation’s most successful athlete. However, our knowledge of this man’s existence was fairly limited even till four hours ago.
Hailing from a remote village in the Churu district of Rajasthan, sport was never on Devendra’s radar. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda two days prior to his event, he said, “ I was only 8 years old when this particular accident happened. I climbed up a tree and accidentally kept my left hand on a 11,000 volt strong electric cable. I was immediately rushed to the hospital where they amputated my left hand completely. I was in hospital for close to six months before reaching my village. My whole family was worried whether I would ever recover.”
Only took up sport to show the world that I can: Devendra
Devendra’s domination of the F-46 Javelin event is unparallel – two world records, two Paralympic medals, two World Championship titles and not to forget 12 consecutive national titles. Until his accident, sport was never an integral part of his life. He added, “Once I went back to my village I saw a change in the way people saw me. For me yes I was under physical pain, but I was the same person. But, the villagers thought I was now weak and wouldn’t get anywhere in life. They even told the same to my family. Once in school, I got the same amount of taunts, a lot of kids made fun of my handicap as well. I was 10-years old I think, when I attended my first Sports Day, it was there I realised that the only way I will be treated equally or without any sympathy is if I beat them on the field. That’s how I took refuge in sport.”
After two years of practice, Devendra was winning all the medals at his school annual Sports day, but he wasn’t going to stop there. He added, “It was like a found a goal in life, finally. Everywhere I went people told me I was weak and they asked me to get on with life by just resting in my home. But now as I got better, they started seeing me as someone who can do well despite my arm injury.”
By the time, he reached 10th standard, the ‘one-armed wonder’ was the Churu district Javelin champion in the open senior category. Till 2002, he participated in only able-bodied events even registering a gold medal at the Rajasthan State Championship. It was around this time that he was discovered by Dronacharya awardee R D Singh. In just three months of training, Devendra would attend his first international tournament in the form of the Para-Asian Games, and return with a gold medal.
India needs Devendra more than he needs India
His coach R D Singh said, “When I first saw Devendra I knew that he will be the best the country will ever produce. He truly loves Javelin as a sport, it’s been what 15 years now and his passion hasn’t diminished one bit. He still wants to beat the younger and still wants to beat the best. I think one thing that has always irked Devendra is the stereotype that differently-abled people need assistance to live life. This is one aspect he takes very seriously, because he feels that he is the face of the entire community in India. He wants to show that regardless how bad your disability is, mental strength and hard work can always overcome that. He doesn’t even compare his throws to para-athletes, he compares it to the able-bodies ones.”
In fact till Devendra was picked up by his coach, even he didn’t know about the existence of para-sports in the country. He added, “Of course if I would’ve known it existed I would specifically train for that. There is a lot more coverage of para-sports now. Back in 2002, even the people involved weren’t completely confident of the rules.”
The above mentioned reason is exactly why Devendra’s 2004 Athens triumph highlighted India’s large talent base in para-athletics. It would be a cake walk for the Rajasthani thrower, who set a world record of 62.21 m, a number that wasn’t broken till today. He said, “The government itself was shocked that an Indian won a medal at Paralympics. I still remember some officials during that time saying things like ‘India has Paralympians?’ I don’t blame them either, we were never even educated in school about these things. 15 years ago no one cared, now organisations like Gosports are helping create champions. That’s why you see such a drastic rise in the medal count.”
Hope India’s performance gives us equal respect as able-bodied athletes: Devendra
Sportskeeda caught up with Devendra on the phone in Rio, where he sounded understandably ecstatic. He said, “You just told me that I’m now India’s most successful athlete. It has a nice tone to it, but I wouldn’t say that at all. I’m happy I gave my best today, but to be the country’s best I have a long way to go. Statistics could often be misleading, because various other factors involved. However, I’m really happy that after 12 long years I could defend my title, that to with another world record. China’s Guo had a very good season, but I knew I have thrown 64 plus in training, hence if I didn’t make any major mistake, I would end up winning a gold medal. I really hope our contingent’s performance highlights how much we can do if we are given more facilities.”
For the past two years, the Paralympic Council of India (PCI) has been essentially defunct from its functioning. Hence it’s become increasingly difficult for potential para-athletes to get access to infrastructure. Devendra said, “I mean 4 medals out of 17 athletes isn’t that bad right? We have shown enough to the country that we deserve more exposure. My only hope is that it doesn’t simmer down like it happened with me in 2004. We should be more than a momentary twitter trend. We all just want the same respect and facilities, that able-bodied athletes get.”
Close to 3 % of India’s population is differently-abled, and Devendra wants them to know that sport is their only tool of liberation. He added, “I tried a lot of things when I was bed-ridden, but nothing gave me more of a sense of equality than sport simply because it tests both your physical and mental boundaries. Once you know that threshold can be pushed, it liberates you from all the societal stereotypes. Trust me if I can, anyone can.”
Regardless of the inconsistent media attention, Devendra has become India’s most successful athlete. No other sportsperson from the country has been able to match his feats till date. It’s time we stop ignoring para-sports as a sporting entity because it’s definitely here to stay.