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In Pics: Differently abled wrestler Virender Singh fights for recognition

Deaf Olympic Gold medallist Virender Singh who can neither speak nor hear is an Arjuna Awardee winner, a champion with three international gold medals. Ignored by the sports authorities, today he can neither afford a home nor a car.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2017 20:57 IST
Ravi Choudhary /  Niha Masih
Ravi Choudhary / Niha Masih
New Delhi
Virender Singh,Sports,India
Deaf Olympic Gold medalist wrestler Virender Singh poses for a portrait with his medals at his akhara near Sadar Bazar in New Delhi. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

He shares a bare, cramped room with four single beds, a wire to hang clothes, a wooden shelf with shoes and a big ledge for all his trophies. The room which is inside a small akhada is often pierced by a noisy railway line that stretches across the heart of Delhi’s Sadar Bazar market.

Virender Singh shares a small room inside his akhara at Sadar Bazar, Old Delhi. ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

Virender Singh, 32, who can neither hear nor speak is one of India’s most accomplished wrestlers with seven international medals, including three golds. Bringing pride to India, this forgotten son today makes a meagre Rs. 28,000 per month as a junior coach and cannot afford a house nor a car. He is popularly known as Goonga Pehelwan.

Virender has wrestled not only opponents on the mat but also with odds through meticulous rigour, personal sacrifice and tremendous talent. But his remarkable story is also an indictment of state apathy and sporting federations who’ve failed to adequately support talent of differently abled sportsmen.

Olympic Gold medalist wrestler Virender Singh poses for a portrait during a practice session at his Akhara in Old Delhi. ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

Born in Jhajjar district’s Sasroli village, Virender never went to school because of his impairment. At the age of 10, his father Ajay Singh, also a wrestler brought him to Delhi for treatment of a foot injury. On the advice of a friend, Ajay admitted Virender to a special school for the hearing and speech impaired. At the same time, the young boy also started training under his father and uncle.

An old photograph of wrestler Virender Singh’s father, Ajay Singh(C). ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

He won his first gold at the 2005 Deaflympics in Australia, where he had to spend Rs. 70,000 out of his own pocket. But the win did not make things easier or bring the recognition his feat deserved. At that time, there was no government provision for cash awards for differently abled sport stars. While other Olympic winners received more than Rs. 5 crore from various governments, states and sports associations – Virender received almost nothing for years.Through these years, with no other avenue of income or support from the government, Virender had to resort to participating in village dangals to support himself. A win would get him between Rs. 5000- Rs. 20,000. It also meant frequent travels to far-off villages in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, often on rickety buses and trains.

Gold medalist wrestler Virender Singh wrestles an opponent during at his akhara at Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi. ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

Singh signals, “If I could speak, I would have fought for the rights of sportspeople like me.” In 2013, three young film makers shocked at the sorry state of things, produced a documentary on him. It won wide acclaim and helped bring much-needed attention on Singh. Finally, as late as 2015, the sports policy was amended to make speech-impaired winners eligible for government cash prizes. Still, they get only a fifth of the money as compared to able-bodied sportspersons.

Virender Singh cools off during a lighter moment in a day near Sadar Bazar.  ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

In 2016, Singh was awarded the Arjuna Award, one of the country’s highest sporting honours. Singh has just returned triumphant from 2017 Deaflympics in Turkey where he won yet another gold. But the contingent returned home to ignominy.

Wrestler Virender Singh feels he has contributed towards India’s prestige but awaits recognition at his Akhara at Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi. ( Ravi Choudhary / HT PHOTO )

No one from the sports federation or the sports ministry was at the airport to receive them which is generally the norm. Singh shakes his head signalling, “I raised India’s prestige internationally with my win but here no one cares. Whether someone watches or not, I have done my work.”

First Published: Aug 16, 2017 15:21 IST