India at the Paralympics: The Times They Are A-Changin’

paralympics
Image credits: Shutterstock

Now that it’s been a full week since the end of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, we can safely say, “wow, now THAT was quite the high.”

India came out of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with mixed emotions — being a tad sad about the medal hopes that didn’t come to be, but euphoric that it was its best medal haul yet.

The seven glistening discs that went back to India were quite a big deal there. Especially when you include a gold one for Neeraj Chopra, and the various silvers and bronzes from women who absolutely killed the game.

But then the Paralympics happened, and our conversation around the Olympics may never be the same.

India walked into the Paralympics this year with a contingent of 54 athletes, almost tripling the previous high of 19 we sent to Rio in 2016.

Speaking of 19, that’s how many medals India won this year, these including a whopping five golds, which saw it finish 24th out of 162 teams.

While only two women won medals, their achievements were noteworthy. Bhavina Patel’s table tennis silver came after several matches against top seeds and previous Paralympic medalists.

Avani Lekhara made history, becoming not only the first Indian female gold medalist at the Paralympic Games, but also the first Indian woman to win multiple medals in a single Paralympics. She also nabbed  a shooting bronze and closed out the games for India as the flag-bearer.

It makes one wonder, though, is why all this hype and attention and praise, all the hundreds of millions of rupees in cash prizes being doled out now, weren’t available during the training phase. Is it all just because of one spectacular performance? Or are things really changing?

It’s safe to say that a majority of people in India paid no mind to the Paralympics, mostly because there’s no glamour attached to it. If that seems a shallow reason to shut out a major sporting event, well, that is the problem.

There’s no real motivation for media, at least in India, to cover the Paralympics in depth because there are  no vested interests involved. That becomes a vicious cycle that helps us forget that it comes around every four years along with the regular Olympics.

Sure, there’s some coverage, but that essentially pays lip service to the athletes, tossed in along with other news. It does not get the full-blown treatment the Olympic Games get. It’s especially noticeable now that more people are becoming aware of the importance of the Paralympics.

The Paralympics have always stood for something more meaningful than the regular Olympics, an investment in not just sportsmanship and competition, but also a record of adversity mastered, and championing the disabled.

India’s stellar showing should be a sign of the changing times, however. The public is more interested in exploring new sporting avenues, and the administration has been putting in resources to develop and cultivate athletes for the world stage.

While the huge medal tally is quite comforting, it is more gratifying to know it’s because more athletes are being found, trained, and actually sent to the games. The jump from 19 athletes to 54 is astounding, and should be an indication of more success to come. It’s a similar trajectory to what we saw at the Olympic Games this year, when India sent its largest-ever contingent, to bring home its largest-ever tally.

The Indian bureaucracy that sponsors most athletes, not just those who go for the Olympics or Paralympics, ends up bringing a lot of them down. Not enough attention or resources are devoted to other sport, most funds being siphoned up by popular sports, such as cricket.

We’ve seen all the biopics. We’ve seen the struggles that produced Mary Kom and the Phogat sisters.

If anything, now is the right time for an influx of Paralympian biopics. So stick around for the Avani Lekhara movie hitting theaters.

How much the public has grown to care about these athletes, their stories, and their performances, should motivate the administration to invest more in their well-being and preparation.

The pride we feel in these athletes should also encourage us to keep supporting them in all their endeavors. It does not matter whether they win medals or not, whether it’s the Olympics, the Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, or even just a normal tournament.

Till then, might as well wait for the Neeraj Chopra biopic, because, you know, it’s coming.