An equal music
India's Paralympians say more needs to be done to include them in the sporting mainstream, so that they become part of the country's Olympic aspirations at Rio
With the Paralympics, as with the Olympics, it is possible to play all manners of games with statistics.
The populations of India and China are comparable -- 1.2bn against 1.34bn. Yet at the recently concluded Paralympics, India’s sole medal, a silver, was won by Hosanagara Nagarajegowda Girisha, an unassuming 24-year-old from a poor, rural family in Karnataka who cleared 1.74m in the men’s F42 high jump.
Girisha, who was born with a deformed left foot, doesn’t think of himself as disabled, only “differently abled”. He also doesn’t like wearing spikes which make him feel uncomfortable. As he jumped, his right foot was bare; his left had a sort of hawai chappal tied on.
Rather like the 25-year-old “blade runner” Oscar Pestorius from South Africa, who played up to his role as the poster boy of London 2012, Girisha is now the face of Paralympic sport in India.
But to continue the India-China comparison, while India got one medal, China required a metaphorical wheel barrow to cart away 231 medals (95 gold, 71 silver, 65 bronze). Russia was second with 102 medals (36 gold, 38 silver and 28 bronze), while the host nation, Britain, exceeded its target of 103 medals by winning 120 (34 gold, 43 silver and 43 bronze).
But the pool from which India’s Paralympians were drawn is miniscule compared with China’s. Before India can think of winning medals, the first task will be to make the final of the competitive sporting events. Normally, the eight fastest go through.
It has to said for the Chinese that they were not over demonstrative about their success. Yet to anyone observing the medal ceremonies, there was a monotonous procession of Chinese athletes: “China-China-China-China-China-China-China-China-China-China...”
The announcer would call out, “As is customary, would those able to do so, please stand for ...the national anthem of the People's Republic of China.”
Sometimes, the gap between success and failure is very narrow indeed. Given the limited amount of training most Indian Paralympians had, their performances showed potential.
Take, for example, Sharath Gayakwad, 21, the lone Indian swimmer in the Paralympic Games who made an emotional appeal to his countrymen.
“I just want people to treat us as equal -- nothing else,” said Sharath, who was born with a deformed left hand (in fact, it is only a stump).
Sharath’s first event on August 30 was the 100m butterfly. “I came ninth. That was my best performance. Only eight go through to the finals. My time was 1min 7.12 sec --the person ahead of me (in 8th place) had 1 min 6. 54 sec. So I missed it by 0.58 secs.”
In the 100m breaststroke, Sharath clocked 1min 18.20 sec - his previous best, which had enabled him to qualify for the Paralympics, was 1 min 20.9 sec.
Sharath came third in his heat. However, after three heats, only the eight fastest went into the finals - and Sharath came 12th overall. The 8th fastest time in the heats was 1min 17.16.
Everywhere, he was asked the same question: why only one swimmer from a country the size of India? At the opening ceremony, the relatively small size of the Indian contingent drew disapproving cries of “Shame! Shame!” from some spectators.
“I have to explain that from the government we are not getting the support,” Sharath would tell people. "I am really lucky because I have my parents supporting me and I have sponsors," Sharath acknowledged. “My sponsors are the GoSports Foundation and Health Add Consultancy, they are working mainly for the employment of physically handicapped and they are supporting me.”
Sharath volunteered, “I have a short left arm but it does not work inside the water but I can hold things. But inside the water there is no movement. So you need to learn how to balance your body because balancing will definitely help you. The body position is the main things. Swimming is all about technique - I swim straight. If there was no balance I would drift to the left side.”
He could speak with inside knowledge about India and China. Sharath explained, “About 10 years back China was just like India in performances whether it was Paralympics or Olympics. China was finishing, just like India, in 50th place, getting three or four medals. But look at them after 10 years. The government took up the full initiative, they gave them the facilities, the infrastructure - I don't know if many people know this but half of the Chinese team has been training in Australia and US and everything has been covered by the government. I am not talking about a month or a year. It is like seven-eight years. Since the Chinese can’t speak English they even have paid translators with them.”
Sharath has a very positive attitude. “I am just happy in the first place to be here because it is everyone’s dream of being an Olympic champion and just participating in the Paralympics or the Olympics is a really big deal. I am happy I have achieved the first step of participating and maybe in the next Paralympics in Rio in 2016 I might be on the podium.”
When the Indians first arrived, it was difficult enough finding out the names of the 10 athletes who had come. All turned out to be men: H.N. Girisha; Jagseer Singh; Jaideep Deswal; Narender Ranbir; and Amit Kumar Saroha (all athletics); Farman Basha; Rajinder Singh Rahelu; and Sachin Chaudhary (power lifting); Naresh Kumar Sharma (shooting); and Sharath M. Gayakwad (swimming).
By and by, the Indians said Karnataka was one state where the government had a relatively progressive attitude towards sport for the disabled. Another was Haryana which provided three of the contingent who came to London.
Two of them Jaideep Deswal, 23, and Amit Kumar Saroha, 27 throw the discus but their stories are different.
While Jaideep had polio in childhood, Amit’s spinal cord was badly damaged in a road accident five years ago when his car was smashed by an oncoming truck. “I was in hospital for six months,” he says.
Unlike some ultra-orthodox Hindus, neither subscribes to the notion that disability is a punishment for misdeeds committed in previous lives.
Amit laughed scornfully, “Yes, because of my paap I had made it to the Paralympics."
His life was transformed when a foreign friend took him to the Paralympic Games in Bangalore in 2009.
He came 8th, and Jaideep 7th.
"I trained for six months, getting up at 3 am because it is difficult to train in 45 degree centigrade temperatures during the day," said Amit, pointing out that those winning medals - especially the Chinese - had been training for, at least, four years and often for seven or eight.
Both Amit and Jaideep spoke of encouraging trends in Haryana where the state government had puts sports for the disabled and the able bodied on equal footing.
What they seek from society and from the Indian government is “not pity but practical support”.
“There is no lack of talent in India,” emphasised Amit.
Meanwhile, Rathan Singh, chef de mission of the Indian contingent, said India’s Paralympic movement was new since it began in 1992 with four disciplines. “Now we have 15. But to come up to the world standard we require (more) time. We were not able to participate in (the recent) world competition otherwise (even) this time we could have sent a minimum of 25 members.”
He was pleased the Indian sports minister, Ajay Maken, had come to London and seen for himself “the football and the rugby and the crowds and how people are enjoying (the Paralympic games)”.
But by the time Rio comes around in four years, India will send “more than 50 athletes”, Rathan Singh predicted.
There is evidence that at a global level, attitudes towards the Paralympics are changing. Out of 164 participating nations, who sent 4,200 athletes, 75 countries won at least one medal. And some did very well. For example, Iran had 24 (10 gold, 7 silver, 7 bronze), Nigeria 13 (6 gold, 5 silver, 2 bronze), Egypt 15 (4 gold, 4 silver, 7 bronze) and Thailand 8 (4 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze).
“I can only speak for Britain,” said Caroline Searle, chief press officer for British Paralympics when invited to comment on the India-China disparity. “I understand in India it is a different culture. But look at China -- 10 years ago they pretended disability did not exist in China. Now look at them they are on top."
One British athlete had something good to say about India.
“Yoga calmed me down I was an angry child,” revealed David Stone, 31, who rode a tricycle as he won gold in the 24 km Mixed T 1-2 Road Race at Brands Hatch, Kent.
Stone described the healing experience he had at the Bihar School of Yoga at Ganga Darshan, in Monger, 200 km from Patna, which he recommends highly to others.
He first heard of the school in his teens. “I was about 21 when I first went there. It helped my body but it helped my mind as well. For a very long time, when I was 18-19-20, in fact every since I was an angry child, I did not like my body. The effect of going to Bihar was that, first, I became more accepting of my body, then I began to like my body.”
Each of the athletes had a personal story to tell which collectively made the Paralympics in some ways more exciting and inspiring than the Olympics.
For example, there is the case of Martine Wright, 39, a British sitting volleyball player.
A day after London had won the right to stage the 2012 Games on July 6, 2005, in Singapore, she had both her legs blown off the very next day because one of the suicide bombers happened to be sitting next to her on the Underground train at Aldgate. She now feels it was her destiny to be part of the British Paralympics team.
“I feel so lucky to be alive,” said Martine, who lives in a country where attitudes towards disability are indeed enlightened.
Italian Alessandro Zanardi, who is 45, was a motor racing star who had his legs amputated in the aftermath of a near fatal crash in 2001. Switching sports, he took up handbiking, a form of Paralympic cycling. In London 2012, he displayed the never-say-die spirit by winning gold medals in the Individual H4 time trial and the Individual H4 road race, followed by a silver medal in the Mixed H1-4 team relay.
The Indian High Commissioner Jaimini Bhagwati invited the Indian contingent to a reception at India House (where everyone wanted to be photographed with Girisha).
“As far as we are concerned,” he had added, speaking for the government if India, “this is as important as any other form of Olympics - we wanted to honour you.”
Back in India, these athletes hope to do much, much better in Rio.