It’s a gesture that should have made most of our cricketing superstars and demigods remove the permanently plastered headphones from their ears.
A week ago, badminton champion and Olympic silver medalist, Saina Nehwal announced a Rs 2 lakh cash reward from her own earnings to high jumper HN Girisha who like her, had won a silver medal, India’s lone podium finisher at the London Paralympic Games. This news received some amount of space and airtime in sports segments of newspapers and TV channels, respectively. Apart from Saina’s contribution, financial support for the high jumper came in from the Union Sports Ministry and a few government bodies. Since then, the buzz and accolades around this athlete seems to have died down.
Girisha’s exploits will be reduced to footnote in the book of Indian sporting laurels, an insipid reminder of the prejudices and disparity that ails Indian sport. At one level, while we went ga-ga when our Olympians returned with the country’s best haul, ever, with rewards flowing in, and rightly so, in the form of cash awards, land, cars and endorsements, we haven’t heard of any other gestures come Girisha’s way, apart from Saina’s gesture. For that matter, there was hardly a ripple, by way of incentives and any other form of feel-good support for Indian contingent before they set out for the London Paralympics. Worse, once the Games were underway, we learnt of horror stories where assistants to each athlete were made to live outside the Games Village even as officials were accommodated inside. Claims that daily allowances were not given to these athletes also surfaced when the contingent returned home.
While the Sports Ministry decided to step in and do their best to salvage the egg-on-face situation, the damage had already been done by then. We fear that this apathy, close on the heels of India’s best showing at the Olympics, might have scarred the mindsets and the enthusiasm of several paraplegic athletes who harbour aspirations to represent India at the highest level.
How many times have we heard of cases of past Olympian champions, national-level heroes and their ilk leading their lives in abysmal conditions, in anonymity, barely a few years after bringing glory to the country? While the country’s cricket body has been doing good work to ensure past cricketers are looked after, we haven’t heard of similar incentives being offered to retired sportspersons from other disciplines. One shudders to imagine the plight of those from marginalised segments (read: differently abled sportspersons).
And so, another Olympic year draws to a close. Sports will return to being a mostly-cricket obsession. A new crop of athletes might bring more glory for India in Rio. But in the interim, let’s not forget those who paved the way, against the odds.
All the more reason why Saina’s gesture must be hailed not just for its magnanimity in the bigger picture, but also for backing a fellow sportsperson, who defied the odds despite being hampered by the lack of support at numerous levels. Are our millionaire sports stars listening?
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY