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Changing attitude towards paralympic sports more important than rewards

While India is rejoicing over Thangavelu’s and Varun Singh’s gold and bronze medal wins at the Rio Paralympics, we seem to fail to notice how difficult it is to compete in these sports.

other sports Updated: Sep 11, 2016 20:55 IST
B Shrikant
Rio Paralympics

While India is rejoicing over Mariyappan’s and Varun Singh’s gold and bronze medal wins, we seem to fail to notice how difficult it is just to compete in these sports.(AFP)

While India is rejoicing over Mariyappan Thangavelu’s and Varun Singh Bhati’s gold and bronze medal wins in high jump at the Rio Paralympics, we seem to fail to notice how difficult it is to compete in these sports for the 4300-odd sportspersons gathered in the Brazilian city.

To get an idea, try hopping on a single leg for 8-10 metres and then jump over a bar placed at a height of 1.89m – the height the gold medallist cleared. Only then will you understand how difficult it was to simply compete for the likes of Thangavelu, Bhati and their fellow disabled competitors. 

Read | Abandoned by father, fought poverty: Story of India’s Paralympics hero

Completing a serve in table tennis using the same hand to hold the racquet as well as the ball, or swimming with only one hand and one leg is more difficult than it looks on the screen. Hitting the bullseye in archery using both hands is hard. Now think of the concentration and effort it takes to do it without an arm — like US archer Jeff Fabry. He uses his teeth to fire an arrow, after loading it with his legs. Fabry will be among the favourites in the men’s individual W1 RR category at Rio. He will be defending the gold he won in London four years ago. 

USA's Jeff Fabry (R) competes during the Rio Paralympics. (AFP)

Or think of his compatriot Matt Stutzman — silver medallist in the Open category four years ago — who has no arms. Stutzman has to pick up the bow between the big toe and first toe of his right foot, pull the cord with his teeth, insert the arrow with his other foot and then fire — a mind-boggling routine for anyone. 

Most of these athletes have to work harder than the able-bodied to master their sport. They also have to endure societal rejection and discrimination to participate in sports for years before they get to the international level. Competitions are few, and in poorer countries, the disabled athletes neither get support from the government and society nor recognition. 

People are unaware of these competitions and we don’t see crowds coming to watch para games – though the Rio Paralympics project a refreshing change as big crowds have thronged the stadiums, drawing praise from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). 

"We have sold 167,000 tickets for the Olympic Park in Barra on Saturday: this is our busiest day ever in the Barra Olympic Park. Much bigger than the top day sales of the Olympic Games,” said Rio 2016 executive director of communications Mario Andrada. 

One just hopes this only encourages organisers and spectators of other events – especially in India where para-sports have seen some difficult times recently. Till last year, the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) was suspended by the international body because of an internal squabble. The sports ministry passed strictures against the PCI for mismanagement and insensitive arrangements for athletes at the 15th National Para Athletics Championships in Ghaziabad in 2015. 

Though Thangavelu, Bhati and other sportspersons performing well in Rio Paralympics may not get feted the same way as PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, they richly deserve the accolades and facilities. But more than the rewards, their performances demand a sea change in the attitude towards para-sports in the society to avoid disasters like those which marred last year’s 15th National Para Athletics Championships. 

Numbers show the way for para athletes 

Mariyappan Thangavelu won gold in the men’s high jump T42. The numbers indicate the levels of disability and impairment and are different for different sports. (AFP)

Ever wondered what the numbers and alphabets associated with a Paralympic sports discipline indicate? While the routines of the para athletes look unbelievably complicated, the classification of Paralympic events too is not easy to understand. Here we list some parameters that will help you decipher important sports events at the Paralympics. These numbers denoting levels of disability and impairment are different for different sports – lower the number, higher the disability. 

Like in swimming – numbers 1-10 are allocated to swimmers with physical impairment, 11-13 for those with visual impairment and 14 for those with intellectual impairment. The prefix S denotes swimming styles freestyle, butterfly and backstroke. SB means breaststroke and SM denotes individual medley. 

So, someone competing in 100m SB1 will be taking part in 100m breaststroke with severe disability. The classification varies according to an event – it may be different for breaststroke and backstroke according to the effect of their movements on the event in question. 

In athletics, prefix T is for track events and F for field while the number refers to the level of their impairment. 11-13 is for athletes who are visually impaired. Those in category 11 are totally blind and have to compulsorily wear a blindfold and run with a guide runner. 20 is for athletes who are intellectually impaired. 30-38 are for track and field athletes with cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions. Those in 21-34 compete seated using a throwing or racing chair while those in classifications 35-38 compete standing. 

40 is the class for competitors with short stature 

42-47 classes are for amputees with 42-44 for athletes with legs affected and 45-47 for those with arms affected. 

51-54 classes are for athletes competing on wheelchairs while 54-58 are additional classes for wheelchair athletes competing in field events. Athletes in classes 51-52 are affected in both lower and upper limbs. T53 athletes have fully functioning arms but no trunk function at all while T54 athletes have partial trunk and leg functions. Athletes in F51-54 classes have limited shoulder, arm and hand functions and no trunk or leg function.

Read more:

Thangavelu’s knack for high jump was discovered while playing volleyball