It’s been a phenomenal week for India’s Para athletes in Tokyo - something which has exceeded all expectations. Ever since Bhavina Patel landed that historic silver in table tennis last Sunday, a steady stream of medals almost each day (17 at the time of writing this) must be giving a heady feeling with which the Indian sports fan had not been familiar before.
The names of Sumit Antil, Avani Lekhara, Bhavina, Manish Narwal - not to speak of pathbreakers like Devendra Jhajharia and Mariyappan Thangavelu - have now entered the drawing rooms of the country. Yes, a part of this excitement - along with some unprecented media attention - could have been the hangover of India’s best-ever medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics which finished in the first week of August but it’s a welcome augury if India are to devlop as a sporting nation beyond cricket.
When Deepa Malik, the iconic Paralympian and now the head honcho of Paralympics Committee of India (PCI), said on the eve of their departure for Tokyo that they were looking at 15 medals - it was seen more as a pep talk from her. For Malik, India’s first-ever women medallist in Paralympics with a silver medal in shotput in Rio five years back, had been an incurable optimist and one thought she was dreaming big as usual.
The first few days of the Tokyo showpiece was fairly uneventful for the Indian contingent - till Bhavina - a 34-year-old on a wheelchair due to an attack of polio ensured herself and India their first medal by shocking the world No.3 from China in her category in the semi-finals. She failed to live her dream of a gold - but ushered in a medal rush which overhauled their best-ever tally of four in Rio in a couple of days and headed towards double digits.
A bit of number-crunching will surely drive home the enormity of their achievement. Till the beginning of Tokyo Paralympics, India showed a total haul of 12 medals (four each in gold, silver and bronze, respectively) with javelin thrower Jhajharia and high jumper Thangavelu accounting for the gold medals with two each. This edition of the Games alone has exceeded that tally - a quantum jump in the performance - which has not gone unnoticed even by the international media.
What led to such a dramatic change of fortunes for the country? To be honest, no amount of emotion or power of words can adquately capture the resilience and willpower of these extraordinary men and women. Take the ever-smiling Jhajharia, who lost an arm as a 10-year-old when he touched a high voltage wire while he was trying to climb a tree in his village or the wiry Thangavelu - whose right leg was crushed in a road accident when he was on his way to school. Thangavelu’s journey had, in fact, inspired talks of a biopic to be made in Tamil language after his gold medal show in Rio.
It was their golden show, alongwith Deepa’s medal-winning performance, which saw the Union Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs and their relevant arm Sports Authority of India (SAI) recognise Paralympics as a window for medal prospects. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), a government initiative launched in 2014, went a long way in providing financial and logistical support to the Paralympians along side the PV Sindhus and Sakshi Maliks.
In hinsight, it’s fair to assume that the stirring show is a result of the athletes’ efforts meeting with support from the establishment. And one hopes this is only the beginning...