If we were to look at the evolution of para-sports in India, it would suffice to say that we have come a long way. Since the country's debut at the 1968 Paralympic Games at Tel-Aviv, the country is credited with 12 medals spanning across different categories at the prestigious competition. This year, India secured its best ever medal haul at Rio with two golds, a silver and a bronze.
The country also saw its largest ever representation at the Games in Rio, with 19 people in contingent – a huge leap from just 10 in 2012. Is this increase an indication of the fact that we are heading in the right direction?
Following the massive disappointment at the Olympics, where 119 athletes brought back just two medals, it might seem odd that such encouraging results by their differently abled counterparts were ignored. The Paralympic Games were not even shown live on TV, in sharp contrast to the nine national channels that were devoted to broadcasting the Olympics in the country.
Despite all the attention the able-bodied athletes received, it was India's Paralympic heroes who made the country proud, and that too away from the spotlight of attention and adulation.
This year, the participation in swimming made up only 5.26% of the contingent – with Suyash Narayan Jadhav being the lone swimmer to achieve the ‘A Qualification mark’. Being unranked, it is no small feat that he finished ninth in his final event, thus cementing hopes of future medals from the 22-year-old.
The previous Games at London saw the emergence of another swimming star – the first Indian para-swimmer to achieve Paralympic qualification. That man is, of course, Sharath Gayakwad – who achieved a personal best ranking of 13th in the world before he qualified for the London Games.
Gayakwad was first spotted by trainer John Christopher at the school level and he remained under his tutelage for the next seven years. Being born with a deformed left hand, it took Gayakwad some time to acquire the equilibrium needed for competitive swimming.
At one point, he was the Asian record holder for both 50m Butterfly and 50m Breastroke. But perhaps his best known feat is breaking PT Usha's record tally of medals at a multi-disciplined event.
With such achievements to his credit, it should come as no surprise that Gayakwad would be keenly interested in India's para-sports prospects. Being a part of the culture and the system that hones differently abled athletes in the country, Gayakwad provides valuable insight into the current multi-faceted condition of this discipline.
“With the increase in support coming from the corporates and Government for para sports education, there has been an increase in the number of participants. It surely has a great future in the country. We also need NGOs like GoSports and Astha along with corporate sectors to come forward and make it even better.”
This optimistic stance is in tandem with the improvement in various para-competitions that India has showcased in the past few years. A glance at the country's record in the Paralympics is enough to drive home this point. The highest number of medals the country has managed to bag at these Games throughout its participation is four (1984, 2016). Barring the two occasions that this happened, India has always had to settle for either one or two medals.
This graph is, of course, constructed keeping in mind the relatively low number of members in the country's contingent each year. Then what is it that has changed? How do we end up performing better with almost little to no representation in the Paralympics?
Funding issues remain a hurdle
“The support system has been very slow and inconsistent from both the government and the corporate sectors. If you look at the funding system, there was absolutely no help till 2008. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi changed it and we saw some support coming our way. Since then, provisional resources have been steady but they are still slow,” Sharath muses.
As is quite evident from numerous stories of struggling sportspersons, the culture of sports (para or otherwise) in the country is anything but stable. Corruption has seeped into every aspect of competitive games, and athletes are the ones who suffer the most.
“Sometimes the athlete doesn’t even get the the funds in time, or the funds will be declined as the athlete's performance hasn’t improved or (he hasn't) performed well. This has happened to me,” Gayakwad recalls. “GoSports Foundation, Astha Foundation with few other NGOs and corporate firms like Gamatics have been great promoters and supporters of para-sports in the country,” he adds encouragingly.
Are the efforts enough?
The question as to whether the onus of bringing about change is only on the government and the corporate sector is highly debatable. As sports viewers in the country, we tend to revel in the joy a medal brings to India, but it is also true that not many of us would be willing to take some drastic action.
Crowd-funding of athletes may save someone's career. Motivation and support from one's own countrymen play a big part in improving an athlete's performance.
But very few people actually invest their money into sporting initiatives. “As a resident of the country we not only need support from the government and corporates, we need support from the general public as well. We need spectators and volunteers to come forward and offer any kind of support possible, even something as simple as motivating the athletes,” the para-swimmer pleads.
The situation, however, still remains stagnant as the 19 para-athletes in Rio went through the Games with almost no media coverage at all.
If the story of Dipa Karmakar starting out her vault training on a scooter is inspiring, the trials and troubles of differently-abled athletes should capture our imagination too. After all, in addition to monetary and financial constraints, these people have also battled personal tragedies to stand as a source of inspiration to anyone who takes the trouble of looking at them. If the condition of sports is abysmal in the country, spare a though for the state of para-sports too.
How good is the infrastructure for the differently-abled?
Speaking from his own experiences, Gayakwad says, “The training facilities are good to get quality coaching in the cities, but only a handful of the facilities are disabled friendly. We have great coaches, but again (only) a handful of them are educated in para-sports.”
“When I started swimming none of the coaches knew how to train a person with any disabilities. My coach John Christopher took me under his wing in 2003 and had no clue how to train me as I was the first differently abled person he had ever trained. He did a lot of research, experiments and discussed with me every step to see if was able to swim better over time,” Gayakwad adds.
A lot has, undoubtedly, been achieved. However, an lot still remains to be done. “We need to get the sports education in the country to the next level and (give) equal priority to para sports,” says the Arjuna awardee who is currently working with Gamatics, GoSports and the Paralympic Committee of India to create this very awareness.
While it is important to maintain a certain degree of optimism at the slow progress, continuous work and attention are required. Sharath M Gayakwad is doing his part. He is currently a swimming coach for differently-abled athletes.
Are the rest of us doing our part too?