Although sporting events for people with physical disabilities have been conducted for over a century now - the 1888 Berlin events for the deaf is an early instance - it took two catastrophic World Wars to fully bring the Paralympics to recognition, in a somewhat roundabout way.
World War II, a four-year long period of devastation, left over 50 million amputees in the United States alone. Most of these amputations were a direct result of mine warfare near the close of the war. India too lost men; thousands returned from the front crippled and sick.
Differently abled players took up professional sport in the following years, and the first Paralympic Games were held in 1948 to honour British World War II veterans. Later, war veterans from other countries were invited to compete. In 1960, a large Para-athletic event was hosted in Italy, with 400 contenders from 23 nations. From then on, the Games have grown to become one of the biggest sporting events in the world culminating in an agreement signed with the International Olympic Committee to jointly host the Games at the same venue.
Regardless of deep cooperation between the two, there still remains a substantial funding and popularity gap.
India made its debut in 1968 and fielded a contingent of 10 para-athletes; eight men and two women played. But India’s first major achievement at any Paralympic Games would come in 1972, with Murlikant Petkar’s Gold in men’s swimming in Heidelberg.
Since then, Indian para-athletes have won more medals, a total of 12, with Devendra Jhajharia and Mariyappan Thangavelu being the only two other Gold medallists for India. However, there is no dearth of talent in the country. Recently, in the Umeed India show hosted by Virender Sehwag, stories of two very distinguished para-athletes were brought to the fore, Suyash Jadhav and Sanjeev Kumar.
Suyash Jadhav is a para-swimmer from Solapur, Maharashtra, who is also the only Indian to have qualified for the 2016 Rio Paralympics in swimming. He has won three international Gold medals; two are from the World Games in Sochi. He has three Silver medals as well.
However, this journey for Suyash was far from easy. When he was in the 6th standard, he got electrocuted in an accident at a construction site. The doctors did their best and Suyash returned to everyday life, but without his hands. Suyash did not slow down. He took up swimming again, months after he recovered. His father, a national level swimmer himself, encouraged him as he practiced, and Suyash has never looked back.
Another important para-athlete, one who has played multiple para-sports, is Sanjeev Kumar. This para-badminton player from Punjab lost the use of his leg at an early age when he contracted polio. Initially harbouring dreams of becoming a cricketer, he quickly developed a passion for badminton as he preferred the individual game over the peculiar hurdles that are inevitable in para team-sport.
In just under ten years, he has achieved spectacular feats, including a Gold at the Para-Badminton Internationals held in Uganda and Best Para-Badminton performance in Germany. He has been able to accrue all of these achievements despite being at a great disadvantage compared to the other players, if infrastructural support and facilities are taken into account.
His better-equipped competitors use 8kg wheelchairs while he has to make do with an old 24kg model. This limits his mobility and tires Sanjeev out sooner than other players of comparable competency. And yet, he has managed to deliver outstanding performances due to sheer skill and stamina. You simply have to see it to believe Sanjeev’s incredible journey.
What both these athletes can achieve with adequate support is unimaginable. Some crowdfunding support has become available recently for Sanjeev and Suyash. In spite of great disadvantages, they have managed to break through the ranks and make the nation proud by investing not just time and energy, but also hope. Their steadfast determination to be the very best has sifted them into the category of India’s next Paralympic Gold hopefuls.Published 11 Oct 2017, 19:08 IST