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Obstacle race: Hurdles India's Paralympic athletes face

What does it take to win an Olympic medal when you are differently abled? For India's ignored Paralympians, it's a lonely journey littered with hurdles.

othersports Updated: Aug 23, 2015 18:33 IST
Vinayak Padmadeo
Vinayak Padmadeo
Hindustan Times
Paralympic atheletes,Differently abled,Olympics
Athlete Girisha HN, who has a club foot, won a silver medal in high jump at the London Paralympics in 2012. Three years before this win, lack of resources had led him to quit sport to focus on supporting his family. (Matt Dunham/AP)

It's 7 am and Raman and Jarnail Singh are warming up at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Jarnail's right hand is tethered to Raman's left as they walk, chat and burst into the occasional sprint. Raman is visually challenged and must train with a runner; Jarnail is a budding able-bodied athlete and doubles as his guide on the tracks.

He is a bit taller than the 5'6'' Raman, and matching strides and synchronising movements was, in the beginning, akin to running a three-legged race. But after months together, they now move effortlessly in tandem through the brisk walks and sprints.

Raman, 27, holds the national record in 100 metres, 200 metres and long jump in the T11 category set by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) for athletes with the most impaired vision. "I knew my body was athletic, so I knew I wanted a career in sport," says the Corporation Bank employee who was born blind. "I am now aiming at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics Grand Prix to be held in Dubai in February, which will be a qualifier for the IPC Athletics World Cup and the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro."

Raman has moved from Bihar to Delhi to follow this dream. Here, he is getting professional training and has access to some of the country's best sports facilities. He must still earn a living while training, and his coach Satyapal Singh says this is holding him back. Still, in the absence of government support and with a crippling scarcity of infrastructure, Raman is one of the luckier ones.

Across the country, India's Paralympians - physically challenged sportsmen and sportswomen who have competed internationally - are fighting lonely battles towards their next step. In Bengaluru, Sharath Gayakwad, who has one functional arm, is looking to add to the six swimming medals he won at the 2014 Para Asian Games in South Korea.

Until recently, he was paying for his own training by working as a swimming instructor. He has now started an e-store to help fellow para swimmers consult nutritionists and trainers. "Most of us oversee our own training, with the assistance of local coaches, so this should help the community," he says.

In Hosanagara, Karnataka, Girisha HN, who has a club foot, is looking to improve on his silver medal high jump win at the 2012 London Paralympics. He wants to win gold in Rio. And Pragya Ghildial from Delhi - wheelchair-bound since an accident in 2010 - works as a yoga consultant to fund her dream journey to the Paralympics as a discus thrower.

In fact, the accommodation offered to players during the 2015 National Para Athletics Championships was so dismal - cramped and dirty, without even adequate wheelchair accessibility - that the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) was suspended by the world body indefinitely.

"I drove 100 km to Ghaziabad every day for the duration of the championships. There's no way I could have stayed in those rooms," says Ghildial, 32. "The facilities are no better at the Sports Authority of India [SAI] hostels. Delhi's Nehru Stadium hostel has only two or three rooms for wheelchair-bound athletes. Clearly when the plan was being worked out, someone forgot about us."

The suspension means that athletes who haven't been classified now have to travel abroad to get the certification. "It's the biggest hurdle for para sports," says Dronacharya awardee RD Singh, who is chief athletics coach for the Indian Paralympics team. "Even before the ban, the government only sanctioned a few meets. Most of the time, athletes have to borrow money or spend on their own to travel."

Supporting those who are just starting out is the real challenge, Singh adds. "Usually, it is the coaches' networking skills and family support that give them access to basic kits and gear."

Mismanagement is another hurdle. "One of the para trainees has been requesting a room in a hostel for months because travelling to the stadium is getting tedious. But his request will not be entertained. Why? Because the hostel is playing host to shooters. Why should the premier athletics training facility in our country let out their hostel to other sports?" said a source.

Raman, for instance, has chosen not to join the national camp for para athletes at the SAI centre in Gandhinagar. "They say Gandhinagar is the only stadium fit to host disabled sports people. But an athlete should have a choice. I can't train there because I have to report to work here in Delhi," Raman says. "They think the needs of all para sportspersons are pretty much the same. Put lifts in hostel and ramps in stadiums and the job is done. For me, the real issue is still basic gear. Most of us still can't afford dietary supplements, or good shoes, which cost Rs 8,000 and need to be replaced every four months."

First Published: Aug 23, 2015 13:27 IST