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Sidelined as they bring glory to the nation: the sad plight of our Special Olympians

India won 173 medals at the recently concluded Special Olympics Summer Games in Las Vegas, USA, but this was not given much attention by the media.

Feature 07 Aug 2015, 15:28 IST

We reported on how India’s athletes at the Special Olympics Summer Games, which concluded earlier this week in Las Vegas, USA, were completely sidelined despite their immense success at the Games.

Our athletes won a whopping 173 medals at the games, of which 47 are gold, 54 silver and 72 bronze. This is not the first time they have performed exceedingly well at the Special Olympics. At the previous edition in 2011, which was held in the Greek capital of Athens, the Indian contingent ended their run with a tally of 243 medals, with 78 gold, 73 silver and 92 bronze.

The 2011 tally was the highest any Indian contingent has ever achieved at a major multi-nation sporting event. Despite this, however, there was no attention given to their achievements then, and the song remains the same even today.

Have the Indian public heard of names such as Parshuram Phadte, Sweta Gosai, Keshav Chaturvedi, Kaveri Ahuja or Shakhu Nagarkar? Probably not. 

Not more than a handful of people have even noticed players such as Ranveer Singh Saini. The 14-year-old became the first ever Indian golfer to even participate in the Special Olympics.

The Gurgaon-based youngster was diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder, at the age of 2. He got into golfing seriously at the age of 9, and there has been no turning back. Supported by his family, with aid from the Indian Golf Union who sponsored his training, Saini worked hard towards achieving his goal, even as he attends day school – he is currently in the 9th standard at Scottish High School.

Destitute, abandoned and brought up in a children’s home

Asha Kiran, a home in New Delhi for the developmentally disabled, houses several of the athletes who were part of India’s contingent to the Special Olympics this year. Among them is 16-year-old Phoolan Devi.

Devi, described as ‘moderately mentally challenged’, was abandoned by her family at the age of 12 for her disabilities, and became part of Asha Kiran in the capital. At this year’s event, she won the country's first ever gold at the power lifting Bench Press event, and three bronze medals – one each at the all lift, dead-lift and squat lift events. 

Nine of her teammates are her friends and companions at Asha Kiran, where Devi reached in 2011 after being found roaming by police in a housing society in New Delhi, admitted to the All India Institute of Behavioural Sciences, when a child welfare committee ordered her to be rehomed. 

She is one of the younger members on the squad. Asha Kiran’s athletes at the Special Olympics include 39-year-old Matru, who won gold at this year’s softball event. He has been at the home since he was found in 1985.

The inmates’ stories paint a sorry picture. Several of them had issues when they needed to visit the 2013 Asia Pacific Games in Australia, because they did not have the basic details needed to complete their paperwork. Many were abandoned as very young children; their ages and parents unknown, no concrete information about their place of birth.

They also do not have concrete training, despite which they have been able to shine at the Games. They only have part-time coaches after their full-time trainer retired. Training facilities for these athletes are also scant – they train outdoors on the grounds of Asha Kiran, where clothes are dried after being washed. 

Special Olympics Bharat, which selected and trained athletes, uses sport to help adults and children with intellectual disabilities enrich their lives, and was responsible for putting together the squad for the Games in Las Vegas this year. 

Although the athletes’ needs may be different, the selection process for the Special Olympics was not any easier. Athletes went through rigorous procedures, with championships held at every stage of selection in order to build the best team possible.

Young schoolchildren shone at this year’s games, with 14-year-old Prabhroop Sekhon of Lucknow winning the 300m and 500m in skating – an event that requires immense coordination and balance. 

More recognition necessary for special athletes

Despite their achievements across disciplines – athletes have won prizes at squatting, power-lifting, skating, cycling and badminton respectively – not much media attention is focused on these youngsters, who work to overcome far more hurdles than many other athletes competing in the regular Olympic games. 

Several members of the Special Olympics Bharat contingent come from destitute backgrounds, being abandoned by families who could not or did not want to care for them, and overcoming this in addition to the developmental challenges they are already facing. Fighting the odds through being brought up in a foster home, with no proper coaching or facilities to train, our Indian athletes have more than done us proud at the Special Olympics Summer Games, and it is time they get the attention and importance they truly deserve. 

Their immense tenacity in the face of adversity needs acknowledgement and understanding not only by the authorities, but by members of the general public. Someday, a Ranveer Saini will be as well-known as an Abhinav Bindra, a Prabhroop Sekhon recalled as well as a Gagan Narang. 

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