Avani Lekhara took some time to settle in during the Women's 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 shooting event on Monday. She called her coach, Suma Shirur, on a couple of occasions during the qualification round before she could get into the groove. Shirur, a former Olympian, recalled her words of advice to her young ward: “I told her, 'Avani, you’ve gone through so much in your own life. This is nothing. You can do it; I know you’re not going to give up. Just hang in there and find the courage.'"
The pep talk worked. Lekhara, all of 19, became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Paralympics as she shot a world record-equalling score of 249.6 in the final. Her medal proved to be the first of a landmark day for Indian Paralympics. On Monday alone, Day 6 of the Games, India won five medals—more than their best-ever haul at the Paralympics before this (four in Rio 2016).
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After Lekhara’s gold, India raked in two medals in the men’s javelin F46 event, with Devendra Jhajharia winning silver and Sundar Singh Gurjar winning bronze. Yogesh Kathuniya won silver in the men's discus throw F56 with a season-best score of 44.38m. Sumit Antil made sure India finished the day the way they had begun, with a gold. A throw of 68.55m saw him claim victory while also setting a world record.
Like Lekhara, the well of courage ran deep for all these athletes.
After all, choosing para sport in India is not for the weak-hearted. We are not a country known for our interest in sports; at best we take sporadic interest in it. India is definitely not a country equipped, whether it comes to attitudes or infrastructure, for people with disabilities. What happens when the two overlap?
“There are two kinds of athletes: ones that are system-generated and others who come on their own,” says Manasi Joshi, who won the para badminton World Championships in 2019, over the phone. “In para sports, in India, you will only see athletes who have come on their own, have fought the system.” Over the past few years, Joshi has seen things improve slightly for para athletes, in terms of awareness, government funding, and corporate interest and investment. But everyday hardships still persist. “I wish all the sports stadiums around were accessible. I wish while going to the sports stadium I didn't have to call for an Uber or an Ola,” sys Joshi. “I wish I could just go to the nearest bus stop and hop in, without worrying about whether people will push me or not allow me to sit in the seats designated for people with disabilities. These are some of the challenges.”
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Athletes like Joshi, Lekhara, and thousands still choose to compete despite knowing the odds are heavily stacked against them. But they throw, they leap, they shoot; on wheelchairs, on prosthetics, with one good arm, with visual impairment. They stubbornly live their life, their dreams.
Bhavina Patel, who won India’s first medal at the Tokyo Games, says there is still a huge disparity between the funds and facilities available to athletes with disabilities, compared to the able-bodied ones. But she plays because she wants to. “In 2004-05, I was training for a course at Blind People's Association in Ahmedabad. I noticed a lot of friends playing table tennis there and started to play it for fun. But then gradually, I felt like this is what I should do and take further in life,” says Patel, who was diagnosed with polio when she was only a year old.
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“I used to get so happy playing table tennis and felt relaxed. I grew confidence and my willpower increased due to the sport. I couldn't stay without table tennis. It was like the sport is everything. I keep on saying that table tennis is my life partner,” she adds with a smile. “I keep Nikul (Patel, her husband) after table tennis.”
The sport is what makes her want to get up in the morning, what keeps her going. Patel’s dedication to her craft was what helped her beat the Rio Games champion and runners-up en route the finals. Though she lost 0-3 to Ying Zhou in the women’s singles class 4 championship match, Patel secured India’s first Paralympics medal in table tennis.
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More history was in the making as Jhajharia clinched a hat-trick of medals. He had won gold medals at Athens in 2004 and Rio in 2016; at Tokyo he claimed a silver medal with a throw of 64.35m. Incredibly, it was a personal best effort by the 40-year-old Jhajharia, making him the first Indian athlete in an individual sport to win medals in three different Games, in Olympics or Paralympics. Clad in black, with the tricolor wrapped around him, Jhajharia stood on the podium as one of the best Indian athletes, not just a para athlete, ever. “To think that I’m winning my third medal 17 years after winning my first, it makes me very proud,” he said after his victory. “It has been an unbelievable day for Indian sport.”
For the first time, Jhajharia shared the podium with a fellow Indian. Twenty-five-year-old Sundar Singh Gurjar, who lost his left hand in 2015 after a metal sheet fell on him, won a bronze medal in the javelin F46 event with a throw of 64.01m.
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In the F64 category in javelin, Antil lived up to his World No. 1 billing and clinched gold. The 23-year-old from Haryana had started out in sport as a wrestler. He lost his left leg in a motorbike accident in 2015 but didn’t give up on his athletic ambitions. After a stunning debut in Tokyo, he’s already eyeing Paris and the possibility of competing at the Olympics. “Don’t be surprised to see me at Paris 2024 taking part in both Olympics and Paralympics,” Antil told the official Tokyo Paralympics website. “I’m confident of throwing between 75 to 80m and that should be enough to compete amongst the able-bodied athletes. I will be trying to do that for sure.”
The average Indian sports fan, and in turn the average Indian sports journalist, has an unhealthy appetite for sob stories. Very often the disability of para athletes, the circumstances surrounding it, the ridicule they suffer, is put at the heart of the story rather than their achievements. We confuse pity with empathy, and end up talking more about the limitations rather than the possibilities.
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“In India, there is stigma attached to people with disabilities,” says Joshi. “But when we see sportspersons, with disability, making a mark on the world level, we see people come out and forget that stigma; that is the change we need to see. Sport is a medium to empower.”
The overwhelming performance of Indian athletes at the Tokyo Paralympics may go some way in changing the conversation.
INDIA'S MEDAL TALLY (as of Tuesday night)
Gold: Sumit Antil - Men's Javelin Throw F64
Gold: Avani Lekhara - Women's 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1
Silver: Yogesh Kathuniya - Men's Discus Throw F56
Silver: Nishad Kumar - Men's High Jump T47
Silver: Mariyappan Thangavelu - Men's High Jump T63
Silver: Devendra Jhajharia - Men's Javelin Throw F46
Silver: Bhavina Patel - Women's Singles Table Tennis Class 4
Bronze: Sharad Kumar - Men's High Jump T63
Bronze: Sundar Singh Gurjar - Men's Javelin Throw F46
Bronze: Singhraj Adhana - Men's 10m Air Pistol SH1
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.