India’s Paralympic contingent convincingly outperformed the country's Rio Olympic squad with a medal-to-athlete rate of 21.4%, the nation’s highest in its century-long tryst with the competitive multi-sport event. The Olympic squad registered two medallists (1.6%) out of 121 athletes, putting India at the bottom of the per Capita Olympic medal table. The Paralympic athletes won four medals, two of them coming in the same event (High Jump), to register yet another first.
All of the Paralympic contingent’s medals have come in Field events at the Maracana stadium. In fact, 15 of the 19 participants were a part of the Athletics contingent, highlighting India’s strength in that domain.
The trend seemed to mimic the footsteps of countries such as Jamaica, who won all their 11 medals in track events. The only difference was that Jamaica’s physical attributes make them the fastest runners in the world, whereas India has to select the sport based on basic accessibility.
Concentration on specific sports such as Athletics has reaped results for India
Since the turn of the century, all of India’s Paralympic medals have come solely in field events. However, India’s most successful coach Satyapal Singh attributes this to a lack of financial resources. He told Sportskeeda, “It’s not the fact that field is the only sport we participate in athletics, it’s the only field we can actually pay for. Close to 70% of the para-athletics events require either a wheel-chair worth Rs. 8 lakh, or a prosthetic leg which costs Rs. 10 lakh.
“For someone who needs to enter a sport where does that money come from? The only running events possible are the terminally blind ones, where we have participants. If there is accessibility, there will be results, invest and you will reap rewards.”
The Indian Olympic Athletics contingent was also the largest in its history, with as many as 34 participants travelling to Rio. Lalita Babar was the only athlete who made a substantial mark at the event, reaching the finals.
This fact clearly highlights that apart from a few prodigious talents, athletics is not one of India’s strong points in the able-bodied contingent. In fact, 111 athletes across 13 sports failed to register a top 6 finish for India at Rio, whereas as many as 15 out of 19 athletes have registered that for the Paralympic contingent so far.
This stat indicates how lack of accessibility in turn has seen a more specific focus on lesser financial strain based sports. The decade long focus on two or three sports has seen a greater output, with India producing world beaters such as Devendra Jhajharia and Mariyappan Thangavelu. These two once again highlighted themselves as the world’s best in their sporting events.
So does it make sense to focus and channelise more resources to athletics as compared to a sport like Judo, where the chances of winning a medal aren’t as high? As per the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), Dipa Karmakar received marginally more funding than Judoka Avatar Singh. With all due respect to Avatar’s ability to shrug off all financial and societal problems to achieve Rio Olympic qualification, the fact remains that Dipa is the fourth best vaulter in the world and the latter suffered a first round knockout.
Finances specifically come into play because there is no equality of infrastructure for athletes in India. Satyapal added, “Someone who comes in the able-bodied TOPS scheme would get something like Rs 30 lakhs minimum, that’s what our highest athletes get, so specific focus on athletics from outside organisations such as Gosports and also some dedicated coaches have really boosted our chances.
“Most of the money that comes from SAI also goes to Athletics, however little it might be. This increases our chances doing better. I think even with able bodied if they do focus more on wrestling and give them a higher importance, it could be a consistent medal winning sport for India.”
With no recognition, the Paralympians have done what no one expected them to do
Deepti Bopiah from the GoSports Foundation has been integral to the Paralympic movement in India. 11 of the 19 athletes belong to GoSports, who are desperately trying to put a basic structure in place for Para-athletes. She told Sportskeeda, “I often see able-bodied sportspersons complain about how difficult it is to be an athlete in India. However, here you have a group of athletes, who are not known to their country, despite being world beaters.
“They have no infrastructure, they have recognition and most of all they deal with their disabilities on a daily basis. If they can, why can’t the Olympic contingent. It is unfair to compare both the contingent’s, but if some of the able-bodied athletes focus more on their dream, instead of the problems they face, it might be fruitful. This is the one thing the Paralympic contingent has shown the Olympic one.”
She added, “We do as much as we can from our end, so that they can go abroad and train. We did it for Devendra, we did for Deepa, we made sure they received the best of coaching and only then did they manage this feat. If they weren’t sent and given the exposure, they simply wouldn’t because other countries have coaches, trainers and specified dieticians.
“None of our athletes have that, we are 19 compared to China’s 500. So the scope and potential of growth is immense. If they can do so well in the only sports they can participate in, if there is more support, I’m sure we can have a larger contingent of 50 or 100, participating in other sports as well. The only issue comes because you need at least Rs 10-15 lakhs for a Paralympian as compared to Rs 8 – 10 lakhs for an Olympian, the eco-system is such.”
The Azerbaijan model
Countries such as Azerbaijan, which won 18 medals, also took strict measures to identify their best sports. They specifically targeted combat sports such as wrestling, boxing and judo, owing to their physical attributes.
A source within the Azerbaijan Olympic Association said, “In 2008, we barely had any medals, we wanted to host the European Games so we needed to show the world that we can win medals. We realised that combat sports is something where our athletes are consistently finishing in top 7-8, so the sporting associations decided to put in more money into these sports. We knew athletics wouldn’t win us anything, so we narrowed down to this. In 2012, we had 12 medals, and in Rio we had 18.”
The results are there for everyone to see; Azerbaijan is one of the top countries in the per capita table, with miniscule and strategic sporting investments. Hence, if India was to direct a substantial amount of resources to sports such as wrestling, badminton, shooting or even maybe a sport like gymnastics, things could improve drastically. Offering subsidies to shooters in the Olympic contingent and track athletes in the Paralympic squad could also boost the accessibility.
The lack of funding narrative cannot be used as an excuse to under-perform, as showcased by our Paralympic contingent. Isn't it time we decided to allocate our resources more judiciously, to a model that can garner better results?