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Tokyo medal haul creates more visibility for Paralympians but parity a work in progress

For the 23-year-old para athlete Sumit Antil, the recent Tokyo Paralympics have been life-changing. Antil had taken up the javelin after his dream of becoming a wrestler was cut short when a tractor hit his two-wheeler in 2015; he had to get his left leg amputated. The long slog since then paid off at Tokyo. He won a gold medal — part of India’s historic 19-medal haul this year — and set a world record of 68.55 m.

His state Haryana announced a reward of Rs 6 crore — at par with what it offered Olympic gold medallist in javelin Neeraj Chopra — and a government job. Antil says he is also in talks with three-four brands for endorsement deals. “This (choosing sports) was a very risky path because you are competing with lakhs of athletes and your chances of success are very limited. Now, I am very relieved because my family will be secure. I only have to worry about my sport,” says Antil, a native of Sonepat, who lost his father when he was very young.

Like Haryana, which incidentally pioneered equal rewards in 2012, several state governments came forward for their para athlete medallists with cash awards and offers of governments job this year — from Rajasthan which announced Rs 3 crore for the shooter Avani Lekhara, the first Indian woman to win a gold at the Paralympics, to Uttarakhand, which gave Rs 50 lakh and a government job to para shuttler and bronze medallist Manoj Sarkar and announced the renaming of a sports stadium in Rudrapur after him. The medal bounty at Tokyo has created more visibility and rewards for India’s Paralympians.

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India has indeed come a long way from the reception it gave to Murlikant Petkar, who won the country’s first Paralympic gold at Heidelberg in 1972 and set a world record in 50 m freestyle swimming. “Although I created a record, when I returned to India, there was nothing else apart from the Rs 5,000 I got from the military and a lot of congratulatory messages,” says the former army man, from his flat in Pune, on a Zoom call.

There is no disguising the emotion in his voice when he talks about the pride he felt when the Tricolour was hoisted while he took his place on the podium. Yet, it was not until 2016, after India won four medals at the Rio Paralympics, that the country remembered Petkar once again and a cheque for Rs 15 lakh from Sachin Tendulkar reached him, via the nonprofit GoSports Foundation. “Suddenly, there were articles in newspapers seeking my whereabouts. They had to hunt for me,” he recalls.

“Central govt was amazing and the foundations have done great work but no corporate has approached us. Delhi govt hasn’t said anything””

— Sharad Kumar, High Jump Bronze medallist

Stakeholders say there has been a sea change after 2016, when India won four medals at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. “There were 19 athletes and four medallists at Rio. That’s when people actually started noticing para athletes and their achievements,” says Namrata Parekh, cofounder of sports advisory and management agency Meraki, which began working with para athletes in 2015, one of the first to do so. “Things have changed immensely. Deals come with performance so you will see a surge every four years. In terms of long-term engagement and revenue streams, too, there has been a change in perception,” says Parekh, whose agency has seen queries about para athletes multiply after the Tokyo wins. Soft drink major Thums Up, which ran an ad campaign titled “Palat De” around the Olympic team, for example, replicated it with Paralympians this year and was also, for the first time, the partner for the Indian Paralympic team.

Deepa Malik, president of the Paralympic Committee of India, was one of the four medallists in 2016. “When I won the medal, I had no idea how the country or state governments would react. But it created a ripple, and started a thought process. After Tokyo, we are seeing that thought translated into action,” says Malik, who won a silver in shot put, becoming the first Indian woman Paralympic medallist. A popular motivational speaker, Malik, who is paralysed from the waist down, has been part of several brand campaigns, the latest for MG Motor.

Amit Kumar Saroha, who came fourth in club and discus throw at Tokyo, says, “After Rio, the picture began changing. Brands began approaching athletes, there has been a lot of support from the government, and more associations have come forward as well.”

“People keep asking me about getting a job. I just want to focus on Paris 2024 but I also have bank loans to repay, so I will have to somehow balance both”

— Jyoti Balyan, Para archer at Tokyo

Much of this change in mindset has been driven by shifts in policy over the years, according to Deepthi Bopaiah, executive director of GoSports Foundation, which has been working with para athletes since 2008 and supported seven athletes who won eight medals this year. “When Haryana announced the same prize money for the Paralympic winner as for the Olympic winner, that was a big deal. Earlier, javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia and Deepa Malik were given Khel Ratna. The minute recognition starts happening at the policy level, a lot of other things get equalled,” says Bopaiah. Para athletes were also supported by the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme, as part of which Rs 8.2 crore was spent on para sports.

Malik, who has conducted sessions with para athletes on how to use social media effectively and worked with Facebook and Twitter to get their accounts verified, says that while a beginning has been made, there is a long road ahead for parity, be it in brand endorsements or other forms of recognition. “There is improvement but it is not the same. If I compare the reception for my silver with what (PV) Sindhu got, that’s evidently not the same,” she says.

The women’s hockey team, which came fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, was greeted with cash awards but no para athlete who made it to the fourth place has been similarly recognised. Like archer Jyoti Balyan, daughter of a farmer in Goyla, Uttar Pradesh, who came fourth at the Tokyo Paralympics.

“In India, people always want to do cricket or Bollywood but we have got a lot of queries from brands after Tokyo. By 2024, the noise around para athletes is likely to double”

— Namrata Parekh Cofounder, Meraki Sport & Entertainment

“Sometimes I question what I have achieved, since only medallists get recognition,” says Balyan, whose late father had to take a loan to buy her the right bow. She would like to devote all her attention to Paris 2024, but adds that relatives keep asking her about getting a job. “I don’t want to be disturbed but we also have bank loans to repay, so I’ll have to balance both.” But there is no ignoring the impact she has had on her village where, earlier, girls were not encouraged to step outside their homes. “Now they are beginning to feel that their daughters can also try it out, like me,” she says.

Sharad Kumar, 27, who has won a bronze medal in high jump, is despondent. “At first, I thought that after winning, people’s perception will change and that I will become popular. But it’s been 15 days and I now know that it doesn’t matter, because I’m a para athlete,” he says. Kumar, who is appreciative of PM Narendra Modi’s encouragement of para athletes, says there has been no monetary recognition, including from the Delhi government. “I wrote them an email over a week ago, saying I have won a medal, but there has been no response.” Monetary rewards, says the athlete who has been training in Ukraine, would have gone some way in making his future secure. “I’m not sure about the future,” says Kumar, whose leg was paralysed by polio.

On the road ahead, Malik says she would like the country to realise that people with disabilities can also be part of nation-building. “A person with a disability can bring a lot of abilities to the table, if you give them the opportunity. India today has 19 glorious medals from para athletes. There can be nothing better than a country providing equal opportunities.”

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