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India at 70: Virender Singh brought India 3 golds but can’t afford a house

The deaf and mute wrestler is an Arjuna awardee after years of toil and global recognition but still doesn’t earn enough to give himself a comfortable life.

IndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 15, 2017 08:56 IST
Niha Masih
Niha Masih
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Independence,Independence Day,Olympics
Olympic Gold medalist wrestler Virender Singh at his akhada at Sadar Bazar in New Delhi.(Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)

2017 Gold Medal, Samsun, Turkey

2016 Gold Medal, Tehran, Iran

2013 Gold Medal, Sofia, Bulgaria

2012 Bronze Medal, Sofia, Bulgaria

2009 Bronze Medal, Taipei, Taiwan

2008 Silver Medal, Yerevan, Armenia

2005 Gold Medal, Melbourne, Australia

One of India’s most accomplished wrestlers makes Rs. 28,000 per month as a junior coach. He has won seven international medals, including three golds. But he cannot afford a house or a car.

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 is inside a small akhada next to a noisy railway line in the heart of Delhi’s Sadar bazaar market.

Meet Virender Singh, 32, popularly known as Goonga Pehelwan. He can’t hear or speak.

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.

Short and stocky, Virender is smiling as he talks in sign language, even while describing his travails. “Main sun nahi sakta, na bol sakta hoon, par iska yeh matlab nahi ki meri koi sunvayi hi na ho. (I can’t hear or speak. But that should not mean that my story should not be heard),” he says with hurried gestures.

In 2016, Singh was awarded the Arjuna Award, one of the country’s highest sporting honours. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

Born in Jhajjar district’s Sasroli village, Virender never went to school because of his impairment. There was no avenue to teach him, or his family, sign language and this often meant Singh went unaided. At the age of 10, his father Ajay Singh, a wrestler who worked for the Central Industrial Security Force, brought him to Delhi for treatment of a foot injury. On the advice of a friend, Ajay admitted Virender to a school for the hearing and speech impaired. At the same time, the young boy also started training under his father and uncle.

Waking up before the crack of dawn followed by a punishing 8-hour workout schedule, no vice and a single-minded focus has been Virender’s life ever since. 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. So, 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 meant frequent travels to far-off villages in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, on buses and trains. Occasionally, there would not even be prize money, only fare reimbursement.

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.

In 2016, Singh was awarded the Arjuna Award, one of the country’s highest sporting honours.

“Still, most people in the country don’t know me,” he rues. Singh has just returned triumphant from another Deaflympics in Turkey, where he won gold. India won 4 medals – gold and bronze in wrestling, silver in golf and bronze in lawn tennis – its best-ever performance.

But the contingent returned home to ignominy. No one from the sports federation or the sports ministry was at the airport to receive them, as is the norm. Singh shakes his head signalling, “I raised India’s prestige internationally with my win but here no one cares.” But heartbreak has always co-existed with hope in his story. “Whether someone watches or not, I have done my work.”

First Published: Aug 15, 2017 07:21 IST