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How do we cheer for the Indian Paralympic contingent when there is no channel broadcasting it?

India is sending its largest contingent in Paralympic history to Rio, but the 1.1 billion population cannot cheer for these unsung heroes.

Devendra Jhajharia is India’s flag-bearer, and 2004 Athens medallist

Education and sport have a closer relationship than one thinks in India. The systematic growth of sport in the country is directly proportionate to the mass educating themselves about different aspects within the entity. For example, a survey conducted by a popular magazine showed that 9 out of 10 Indian citizens didn’t know about the existence of the Produnova prior to Dipa Karmakar’s Rio sojourn. Hence, a nation of 1.1 billion people were introduced to an Olympic high performance sport such as Gymnastics. This particular notion is relevant when it comes to India at the Paralympic Games 2016.

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested the nation to cheer for our 19-member Paralympic contingent. He said, “The people of India will be enthusiastically cheering for our athletes representing India at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, starting 7th Sept.”

A total of nine TV channels broadcasted the Rio Olympics to Indian households. However the amount of coverage to their differently-abled compatriots is approximately, 0. So, even if we want to rally ourselves together to watch India’s star-studded contingent, it’s not even an option.

Nine channels for abled, 0 for differently-abled

 72 % of India’s Paralympic contingent is ranked within the top 10 of the world, making them statistically far more competent to win a medal in Rio. In an unsung first, the T-42 High Jump category has seen India hold the top three rankings in the world. However, these numbers weren’t enough to convince DD Sports or Doordarshan to educate the country about the existence of para-sports in India.

 

World numer 2 Javelin thrower, Sandeep expressed his disappointment regarding the matter. He said, “I’m a relatively new thrower in the scenario, hence for me it came as quite a shock because I presumed reaching the world number 2 status would give us widespread coverage. Once I reached Rio, I saw athletes ranked below me get more fan following than me which was quite surprising. I had this notion that all para-athletes were not popular. Then I realised that it’s just us and how uneducated we are. Most people don’t know what its about because we have never bothered to tell them. If the government really wanted to show it they would, but what they don’t realise is Doordarshan will help people in villages also see us.”

And he’s right, Doordarshan has a viewership of 479.9 million, a country mile ahead of all private networks. Similar to Dipa’s situation, if broadcasting would help the visuals of national Paralympic success reach Indian villages, new stars could definitely emerge. Satyapal Singh, who is India’s most successful Para-athletics coach with 54 medals across all international competitive tournaments, is confident that the squad could win as many as 6 medals. He said, “I can tell you right now that we will out do our able bodied contingent. Both Javelin and High Jump we have definite medals and others there are chances. Some of them we have outside chances as well. Three Javelin guys are ranked in the world top three, four high jump guys that’s almost 50 % of our contingent. If they reach the level they normally do a medal is guaranteed.”

Missing out on a successful Paralympic edition will only act as a catalyst to the existing process of ignorance. If the Paralympic officials have printed the wrong flag on the blazer, it’s simply because they know the repercussion will not be too serious, ‘it will not be within the public eye’.

Until we create heroes and brands out of our para-athletes, we cannot expect a brand like Star Sports to heavily invest in the sport. However, it is Doordarshan’s sole responsibility to highlight such stars as they will be representing the country on the national front. Last I remember, they are the country’s only national network.

Three Indian High jumpers in the world top 3 (Mariyappan Thangavelu, Sharad Kumar, Varun Bhati)

Star Sports dedicated as many as eight channels for the Rio Olympics, four in standard definition and four in High definition. Their mobile app Hotstar gave a further addition of visibility in the mobile users market. However, there was no offer from them or any other private entity for the Rio Olympics.

A source within STAR told Sportskeeda, “How many people know about the existence of para sports, the sample size is too small for us to even take a risk. Think about it this way, even when you have a gut feeling, you do it based on the assumption that it will work. In this case the assumption can’t be taken. Yes, the government networks should have broadcasted it, but for us there was no monetary benefit. Once they are successful and comeback to India, we will give them the amount of coverage they deserve through our various mediums.”

Why is Mariyappan Thangavelu any less a hero than Dipa Karmakar?

Last week, the US Athletics Association released a mind-boggling statistic that it takes approximately a $1 Million to create a Paralympic medallist. If you ask the Indian athletes, they are quick to admit that they have not made a single penny in this profession. Ankur Dhama, a 1500m participant and India’s first fully blind athlete in the Paralympics said, “Its not our profession, it’s our passion, if it was our profession we would make money for it. I don’t even ask for money, I just want transport and travel fee to events taken care off, really don’t care about the money. We have just forgotten about all this, now we use it as a motivation to get a job so that we can pay off our loans. If I calculate all that I have spend and taken from my coach, it would come to around Rs 20 lakhs for my career. Not a single penny I got in return, but I don’t expect it anymore it’s for the medal.”

In the case of world number 1 high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu it’s just that. After having his right leg crushed at the age of 5, by a speeding bus, he took refuge in sport. However, the 3 lakhs borrowed for treatment is yet to be paid. He said, “I just want to give my mother a happy life, she is a vegetable seller and works day and night just to pay off my treatment loan. So if I win gold, there is a cash prize and whatever I get I will help build a comfortable life and pay off my loan.”

Lesson to Learn: Australia now has more Para-athletes since they began national brodacst

Why are Ankur and Mariyappan any less a hero than PV Sindhu and Dipa Karmakar? With no disrespect to their achievements, the duo had a complete body to compete against the best. For our para-athletes, they have to fight physical and societal barriers, which culminates with a lack of education about their sport in India. In fact, their rags to riches story will only appeal to the common man, and give other differently-abled people a way to reform their lives. They can act like an inspiration similar to the American Paralympians, who are widely celebrated across their country.

Channel 9 from Australia has confirmed that they will be showcasing their entire contingent’s participation live. A step which has seen several Australian differently-abled people give para-sports a shot. An Australian fan, Brendon Wade said, “I went for the Olympics, but a bunch of my friends have gone for Paralympics as well. You know ever since Channel 9 started broadcasting it, you can see a lot of these young budding para-athletes take to community centers. Like I think my local swimming center in Perth has so many para-swimmers now. It’s got a very positive response.”

Suchandra Ganguly from the Civilian Welfare Foundation has been consistently requesting the Sports Ministry to showcase the Paralympics on national television. She said, “You know it has the potential to become something like Kabaddi, where the interest can grow once broadcasted. We have been requesting the Sports Ministry to actually enforce the issue, but it has met no response. Several former Para-athletes have joined the cause, but it’s not working. Now there is no way to showcase it, but we are pleading the Ministry to show at least parts of it. Recorded videos of our Indian contingent  on Doordarshan will go a long way. I really don’t want to talk about their struggles because it’s obvious. They should just get the respect the others deserve, that’s it.”

Apart from just a way out for budding para-athletes, the recognition of reaching a Paralympic event is equally important. The once in a 4 year Olympic fan ranted about the lack of medals from India in Rio, now we can get 6 from our Paralympic contingent, since we are starved of a hero, why not showcase the best para-athletes in the world on National TV for people to choose their new heroes. They should be given a chance to make their mark on the grandest stage of them all. Sadly in India’s case, 1.1 billion of them will miss it.

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