The Indian contingent did not fail to deliver at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, bagging one gold, two silvers and four bronze medals and finishing 48th on the medal tally, its highest in over 40 years. Just as the elaborate celebrations in the country were drawing to a close following the Olympic success, another set of Indian athletes was gearing up for the coveted 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, which were held from August 24th to September 5th. And the para-athletes put up yet another exceptional performance for the country to witness and celebrate. Not only did the strength of the contingent stand at an unprecedented 54 but they also registered India’s best Paralympic medal haul, bagging 5 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze medals. To put this in perspective, before the Tokyo Paralympics, India had won 12 medals in all the Games combined since their inception in 1960.
Bhavaniben Patel secured India’s first medal at the Games by winning a silver in women’s singles table tennis (Class 4). The shooters made a substantial contribution to the tally by clinching 2 golds and 5 medals in total, as did the track and field athletes who won 4 medals in high jump, 3 in javelin throw, and 1 in discus throw. The badminton players brought home an impressive four medals – including two golds – despite this year being the first time the sport was played at the Paralympic Games.
These results materialised even as Deepa Malik, a former Paralympian and current head of the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) said prior to the Games that they were optimistically expecting fifteen medals, thereby begging the questions: How did the country’s athletes deliver such an incredible performance? What explains this rather unfamiliar exponential increase in medal count?
Several believe that the results of the 2016 Rio Paralympics played a vital role. That Devendra Jhajharia won the gold medal with a world record javelin throw (in the F46 category) in Rio followed by T Mariyappan and Varun Singh Bhati who medalled in the same event and Deepa Malik won the silver medal in shot put (and became the first Indian woman to medal at the Paralympics), offered both hope and visibility for our elite para-athletes in specific and became a breaking point for para-sports in general.
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports initiated a scheme termed Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) in 2014, which, as is evident from the name, aims to provide all-round assistance to elite athletes from across 13 sports. Post the Rio Paralympics, the scheme was revamped, and its implementation expedited. Among the 13 games, archery, badminton, boxing, hockey, and wrestling were categorised as ‘high priority sports.’ Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, the government invested around Rs.2.8 crore on the top-level para-athletes and provided athlete-specific assistance in the form of equipment and biomechanics, foreign training exposure, and access to coaching camps. For instance, shooter and double medallist at Tokyo Avani Lekhara had a computerised digital target at her residence and the silver medallist Bhavina Patel, a table tennis robot and an Ottobock Wheelchair funded by the sports ministry and Sports Authority of India.
Of equal importance to India’s Paralympic success this year was the contribution of civil society organisations. Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) is a private initiative which supports Indian athletes in winning Paralympic and Olympic medals. 10 of the para-athletes they supported bagged medals at Tokyo 2020. Nandan Kamath, the Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture working towards sports development, shed some light on the kind of intervention the organisation undertook. He noted that they worked with their CSR partners and formulated a high-performance programme for Paralympics aspirants, which improved athletes’ access to competitions, experts, career support, equipment and the like. They were thus eventually able to bridge the several gaps in athlete programmes and subsequently improve athletes’ Paralympic prospects. Both GoSports Foundation and OGQ also collaborated with TOPS in their effort to assist athletes. Overall, such initiatives resulted in better participation from para-athletes at the national level; the number of para-athletes, for instance, increased from 500 at the 2015 nationals to 1800 in 2019.
None of this, however, is to say that the sports ecosystem is perfectly conducive to the requirements of the differently abled. It is, in fact, far from it; the space is rather exclusive and marred with systemic flaws. Ableism is rampant in the country in that differently abled individuals are generally either victimised, hyper-focusing on their disability or treated the ‘same’ as others (which does not necessarily mean being treated ‘equally’ for it merely homogenises differences in identity) thereby blatantly ignoring their special needs. Even access to sports as a recreational activity thus becomes nearly unimaginable, let alone as a serious hobby or profession. Schools, colleges, public sports centres, and private academies hardly accommodate their needs. Rahul Bajaj, a policy professional who is blind confesses that even pursuing swimming classes became impossible; a pool in Delhi turned him down on the grounds that they had received complaints from female swimmers about unbidden contact; having a blind individual in the pool could cause them problems.
Needless to say, differently abled individuals constantly grapple with the challenges posed by infrastructural inadequacies. Statistics show that under 7% of the buses in India are compatible with wheelchair use. Train stations and trains, too, are hardly equipped with facilities to accommodate the differently abled as are intercity trains. Bhavina Patel, the table tennis silver medallist’s struggles as a polio survivor are a case in point. She had to switch two buses, then hop on to a couple of share auto-rickshaws, and finally walk the last mile or so on crutches amid Ahmedabad’s acute traffic just to arrive at a venue. Is it not naïve and insensitive, then, to simply expect the para-athletes to win one medal after another as if forgetting these circumstances?
Besides, the elite Paralympians are but a fraction of para-athletes, or aspiring ones, in the country. At the grassroots level, there is a looming dearth of both a framework for para-athletes and public and media attention about said shortcoming. Not everybody is provided with venues to train, let alone sophisticated biomechanical technology. With scarcely any access to coaches, mentors, training camps, and requisite infrastructure at the lower levels, the athletes who have climbed the ladder to the top have done so on their own, despite the system, not because of it.
Systemic weaknesses and ableism abound even at the top. For one, in a PCI Special Emergency Executive Meeting held in early 2020, four PCI state associations’ memberships (that of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Nagaland) were discontinued in order to “reduce multiple cross litigations pending in various courts in Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka.” The PCI failed to prioritise reinstating their memberships into the committee for the entire year until the 2021 National Championships. Despite several international-level para-athletes hailing from Rajasthan and Haryana, the media did not cover their stories (due to the terminated membership). Qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics necessitated that they be close to the PCI’s power lobbies. For another, para-athletes are denied fundamental recognition. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) has not so much as assigned identification numbers to the para-badminton players who win laurels together for the nation. BAI’s website displays over 6000 registered players’ BAI IDs, none of whom are para-athletes.
Given this context, India’s performance at the Tokyo Paralympics underscores the sheer excellence of the Paralympians. To not just participate but win a great many medals despite the systemic unfairness and exclusion and lack of resources, opportunities, and recognition must be lauded. One can only imagine what the results would be like with societal and systemic support. Let us thus not consider the Games as the end of a series of efforts to deliver outstanding results. Let them instead mark the beginning of an era of better sports infrastructure for the differently abled, changed social perspectives, bigger para contingents, more medals and records, and greater national sporting glory.
About the author
Sajusha is a third-year student pursuing an integrated MA in Development Studies at IIT Madras. She is also a track athlete who is passionate about all things sport.
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