Devendra Jhajharia has achieved quite a few firsts while representing India as a para athlete. He was the first Indian to win two individual gold medals, both with world record throws, at the Paralympics. He is also the first Indian athlete to win three medals overall at the Games. On Monday, the javelin star became the first para athlete to be conferred the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour.
“It is one of the biggest achievements of my life,” Jhajharia, 40, tells Lounge. “There is a lot of excitement around para sports now and this may give hope to young athletes. I feel like this award shows that the way Indian society looks at para sports, and disabled people, has also changed.”
When he first picked up the javelin, at the age of 12, Jhajharia was treated with contempt. “They told me, ‘ye (javelin) tere kaam kin nahi hai,(it’s of no use to you)”he had told Lounge in an interview before heading to Tokyo last year for the Paralympics. His left arm had to be amputated, when he was eight, after he was electrocuted by a live wire. Jhajharia still recalls people, including relatives, telling him and his parents that his life was as good as over.
Even though there was no concept of para sports in the district of Churu, Rajasthan, from where he hails, Jhajharia pursued javelin throw. He competed with able-bodied athletes in district and state tournaments, before graduating to the national level.“There was a time when if a disabled person entered a playground, people would ask, ‘Why are you here? What will you do here?’” he says. “A lot has changed now. People with disabilities are encouraged to play sport.”
Jhajharia’s achievements have been a big part of India’s para sports movement. His Paralympics journey began at the 2004 Games in Athens, when he won a gold medal in the F44/46 category with a world record throw of 62.15metres. With his event slashed from the next two Paralympics, Jhajharia had to wait for 12 years for another shot at glory. He won his second gold at the Rio Games, with another record throw of 63.97m. At Tokyo in 2021, Jhajharia won silver.
“All the medals have their own place of importance,” he says. “When I won a medal in 2004, no one knew about Paralympics. This was my way of spreading the message of Paralympics to India. Unfortunately, I had to sit out for 12 years. In Rio, I won the second gold medal with a world record. I won the third at 40 years of age. A lot of people thought I was too old to compete; to win a medal. But winning a medal at this age was an achievement in itself. Before Tokyo, during our final trials in New Delhi, I had recorded a throw of 65.71m, which was a world record (not ratified) then. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
In 2004, when Jhajharia made his Games debut, India had sent a contingent of 12 and returned with two medals. At the Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by a year, the Indian contingent of 54 brought home a record haul of 19 medals, including five golds. “Changes started happening about five-six years ago,” recalls Jhajharia. “In 2015-16, the government of India decided to provide us with facilities on par with other athletes. We were included in TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme), we were given proper training facilities; they helped us bring in personal coaches, physiotherapists. If an athlete wanted to train abroad, they provided funds for that. Our performance at the Tokyo Paralympics created a lot of awareness; it took sport to almost every household in India.”
Jhajharia believes the latest honour, the Padma Bhushan, will help further with the shift in momentum. Though Jhajharia has been the poster boy of Indian para sports for almost two decades, he feels that he is far from done. Despite the accolades and medals, the 40-year-old is back in training at the Sports Authority of India centre in Gandhinagar. “Paris (Olympics in 2024) is definitely on the radar,” he said. “But we will go step by step.” He is targeting a return to competition at the Tunis 2022 Grand Prix at the end of June and then prepare for the Asian Games, which will be held Hangzhou, China, from 10-25 September. “I have represented India for 20 years; it has been a long journey,” he says. “Receiving the Padma Bhushan is an honour, but it also means added responsibility for me. It has motivated to continue and push further.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.