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India's Special Olympics athletes: Gaining identity through sport

Ten athletes from New Delhi's Asha Kiran Home for Mentally Retarded Persons are part of the 240-member, US-bound contingent that will represent India at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles beginning on July 25.

other Updated: Jun 20, 2015 19:44 IST
Shantanu Srivastava
Shantanu Srivastava
Hindustan Times
Special Olympics World Games,Los Angeles,Asha Kiran Home

"India jeetega," she shouted, her eyes bright, her face glowing. And since it was the World Cup season, Seema's continued recital of her wishful prophecy didn't seem outlandish. Except, this 27-year-old appears no older than 15. Her IQ is much lower than what is the norm for her age. This runner is set to represent India at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles starting July 25.

Ten athletes from New Delhi's Asha Kiran Home for differently abled persons -- that houses Seema -- are part of the 240-member, US-bound contingent.

If you intend to admire her fortitude and pity her state, Seema won't give you time for that; her words come out in an incoherent rush. Save her wide grin and intermittent "India jeetega" clarion call, nothing about her is constant. She is an energy can, and will expend that energy on the tracks of LA soon.

"She watches television, and these days she is really hooked on to the World Cup," Dr. Rachna Bhardwaj, superintendent of the female wing of Asha Kiran informed. That explains 'India jeetega'.

Asha Kiran houses about 900 inmates -- largely orphans, erstwhile beggars, and homeless brought there by the police. The organisation comes under Delhi government's Department of Social Welfare. Bhardwaj says there are some kids whose parents have abandoned them. "Some parents come to visit their children, but the frequency is very low," she informs. "Apart from their mental conditions, they also suffer from various other problems like speech and hearing impairment. A lot of them can't tell if they are in pain," Bhardwaj adds.

The ground where Seema meets us is a regular neighbourhood park -- a thin carpet of grass turning brown under the unforgiving sun, a cackle of voices, a see-saw in a desolate corner, and children of various ages playing cheerfully.

Powerlifters Phoolan Devi (centre) and Sonakshi (right) hone their skills under the watchful gaze of coach Seema. (HT Photo)

Phoolan Devi (32) and Sonakshi (18) are pumping iron. The duo has trouble speaking. Devi is vociferous, jovial, and a medal prospect; Sonakshi is reticent, quiet, and still learning. Both are powerlifters.

"Mai jeetegaa. India ka naam roshan karega. Aapka naam roshan karega. Seema ma'am ka naam roshan karega (I will win. I'll make India proud. I'll make you proud. I'll make Seema ma'am proud)," Devi says.

Their coach, Seema, doubles up as a House Aunt. Eager to help the budding athletes, she underwent training in powerlifting before taking the plunge. "I bonded really well with these children, and I thought I can really contribute to their development this way," she says when asked about what drove her into coaching. Seema will travel to LA along with Asha Kiran's Clinical Psychologist, Babu Ram Raman.

Devi lifts 75 kg in dead weight and does 70 squats. She likes watching television and loves to eat. "Chawal and juice accha hai (I like rice and juice)," she informs, as her friends shout "bahut khata hai! (She eats a lot)"

It's hot, but the special ones show no signs of the heat getting to them. Their weak nervous system ensures their sensory capacities are variably muted.

An IQ of 70 is considered the threshold for mental retardation. Anything between 70-55 is mild, 54-40 moderate, 39-25 severe, and below 25 is considered profound. For the record, an IQ level of 120 is considered 'normal'.

Asha Kiran houses people from borderline to severe IQ levels. Those with mild to moderate levels can compete in sports. Seema has the lowest IQ level (33) of the group. She falls under the severe category, but has managed enough mental strength to overcome her limitations.

Kalyani, a cyclist, troops in after training and is visibly disturbed by the heat. She doesn't know she needs to remove her helmet and ask for water. Her IQ is in the 65-69 range, and she looks like a regular 14-year-old, except she will turn 30 this August. Her bicycle is not the sort used by a professional cyclist, but is good enough to provide her a semblance of liberation and an increased sense of self-worth. She speaks less and has trouble comprehending our queries.

Her coach, Manoj Kumari, is impressed. A qualified sports coach with 12 years of experience, Kumari has been deputed by Special Olympics Bharat, an NGO, to train Asha Kiran's kids. Her first brush with the special ones leaves her overwhelmed. "It's a very special feeling. The satisfaction that I get from training these athletes is immense. In fact, training them is an education in itself. They respond well to training, and running is a great way to harness their boundless energy," she says.

Like Seema, Patto, also with an IQ of 35, will run for India in LA. Together, the duo aims to put India on the sporting map.

"These kids can't locate India on a map. They don't know much about the country. But they know that it belongs to them, and they are really passionate to win it for India. They have the jazba," says Bhardwaj.

As we prepare to leave, the group gets around us for an extended handshake session. The photographer is mobbed, this correspondent is accorded celebrity status, and murmurs of 'Thank You' accompany joyous waving of hands from the athletes. They are arranged for a group photograph, and Kalyani -- with her bicycle -- requests to stand in front. Her friends grant her wish, giving us an impromptu lesson on understanding.

"India jeetega," Seema chants, once again. "India jeetega," we reply.

First Published: Jun 20, 2015 15:40 IST