India’s para sportspersons have always punched above their weight and it is proved by the fact that it was a para-swimmer who bagged the country’s first individual gold medal in Olympics or Paralympics in 1972. And also from the fact that a para-shooter is the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics or Paralympics.
Murlikant Petkar won gold in 50m freestyle swimming in the 1972 Paralympic Games and Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in R-2 10m Air Rifle SH1 event at the Tokyo Paralympic Games that concluded on Sunday (Sept 5).
India had a very successful Paralympic Games with a rich medal haul of 19 — their highest ever, which included five gold, eight silver, and six bronze medals. In contrast, India bagged only seven medals in the Tokyo Olympics which included one gold, 2 silver, and 4 bronze medals.
In 11 editions of the Paralympic Games from 1968 to 2016, India had bagged only 12 medals. So, Tokyo saw India’s overall medal count more than double — 31 after Tokyo 2020 (9 gold, 12 silver, 10 bronze).
Of the 19 medals that India won at the Tokyo Paralympic Games — eight came in athletics including the gold won by Sumit Antil, five in shooting (2 gold), four in badminton (2 gold), and one each in archery and table tennis. India had sent its largest-ever contingent of 54 sportspersons to Tokyo Games.
The Games also saw India winning medals for the first time in shooting, table tennis, and archery while badminton made its Paralympic Games debut. Earlier, India’s medals had come in athletics, powerlifting, and swimming.
Shooters Avani and Singhraj joined Joginder Singh Bedi as the only athletes to win multiple medals in a single edition of the Paralympic Games. Bedi had bagged three medals (1 silver, 2 bronze) in athletics at the 1984 Games at Stoke Mandeville/New York whereas Avani and Singhraj won two medals each in Tokyo — the 19-year-old Avani won gold in Women’s 10m Air Rifle SH1 and bronze in Women’s 50m Air Rifle SH1 while the 39-year-old Singhraj claimed silver in Mixed 50m Air Pistol SH1 and bronze in Men’s 10m Air Pistol SH1.
Besides winning 19 medals, what was heartening was that the Indians created many records.
Sumit Antil set a World Record in F64 Men’s Javelin throw; Avani equalled the World Record and improved a Paralympic Games Record in winning the gold in R2 Women’s 10m Air Standing SH1; fellow shooter Manish Narwal made a new Paralympic Games Record in P4-Mixed 50m Pistol SH1; Nishad Kumar set an Asian Record in Men’s High Jump T47 while another jumper, Praveen Kumar, rewrote the Asian Record in Men’s High Jump T64.
Besides this, a few Indian para-athletes missed out on medals. Swaroop Unhalkar (Men’s 10m air rifle SH1), Sandeep Chaudhary (Men’s Javelin Throw F44, Soman Rana, Navdeep (para-athletics), and Tarun Dhillon (para-badminton) missed a medal by a whisker as they finished fourth.
So, one of the reasons for India’s improved performance in Tokyo was the increase in awareness about para-sports in the country after the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016.
“Definitely, that was the glass-ceiling breaking point (for para-sports) as the country was starving for medals. At Rio Olympics only PV Sindhu and Sakshi (Malik) could get us (medals), especially we were starting for gold and when Devendra (Jhajharia, javelin throw F46) won the gold medal with a World Record throw, that too a second gold after a gap of 12 years, and then two people, Mariyappan (Thangavelu) and Varun Singh Bhati won in the same event, it made people notice,” Dr. Deepa Malik, president, Paralympic Committee of India, had told IANS before the start of Tokyo 2020.
“Twice the National anthem was played — I wish I could have also done that but none the less the flag did go up, we could see two Indian flags go up (in the same event).
“The country did give focus because the honorable Prime Minister spoke about it, he tweeted about it. And suddenly the focus of the government (was on para-sports). It’s so important for the government to be part of it and the government did become part of it and the rest is history. We can see the results coming in,” said Dr. Deepa.
According to her, the task ahead of PCI now is to ride the momentum to develop the para-sports further. She has spoken about the need for corporate support as the federation has to make available specialised equipment, prosthetics for the athletes, which is quite costly, conduct more events at the domestic level, and provide more international exposure to the existing as well as the new para-sportspersons.
The gains from Tokyo 2020 will be lost if the PCI fails to do so.