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Posted at: Aug 12, 2017, 1:56 AM; last updated: Aug 12, 2017, 1:56 AM (IST)

DISABLED

As Devendra Jhajharia gets set to be the first Paralympian to receive the Khel Ratna Award, he becomes a ray of hope for many

Sabi Hussain

Devendra Jhajharia’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since his name was recommended for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. While there is a deluge of congratulatory messages on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, his native home in Rajasthan is being frequented by politicians and bureaucrats.

The award has suddenly brought the focus on this two-time Paralympics gold medalist. “It’s been a surreal few days,” said an elated Jhajharia over the phone from his village Jhajharian ki Dhani in Churu district.

“It’s like a dream come true.  I waited 12 years for this honour, since winning the gold at 2004 Athens Paralympics. The award has given a ray of hope to other para athletes in the country,” said the javelin thrower and Rio Paralympics gold medalist.

August 29 would, indeed be, a watershed moment in para-athletics, as Jhajharia will become the first Paralympian to receive the Khel Ratna Award at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Each day a new fight

For para-athletes, such moments of joy during their professional career are far and few between. Instead, they have an everyday fight on their hand for recognition, equality and, more importantly, against bureaucratic red-tapism.

Last month, para-swimmer Kanchanmala Pande was forced to beg in Berlin, Germany, after she apparently ran out of money to meet her expenses while competing in a week-long tournament.

Recently, a 62-member Indian contingent of hearing-impaired athletes, returning after its best-ever performance at the Deaf Olympic Games in Turkey, protested when no official from the Sports Ministry or the Sports Authority of India came to receive them at the Delhi International Airport. “Time and again, we have  been failed by the system,” said Haryana’s Paralympian and Arjuna awardee discus thrower Amit Saroha.

Spurred by taunts

Recalling his struggle, Saroha said the fight was not about coming out of the hospital following a horrific car accident in 2007 but being able to find acceptance in the society.

“I wanted encouragement, not sympathy. I wanted the Tri-colour wrapped around my body, not a  consoling hand on my shoulder,” said Saroha, a gold medallist at the 2014 Incheon Asian Para Games and a silver medalist at 2015 and 2017 editions of the World Championships.

“My lower body had become paralysed after the accident. I didn’t want to sit idle at home. Since I had been a National-level hockey player until 2003, I decided to participate in throw ball and discus throw events. But, the Paralympic Committee of Haryana (PCH) refused to accept my candidature,” said Saroha.

“The accident had left me  quadriplegic (with paralysis of all four limbs). The PCH officials were convinced that my upper body wouldn’t be able to generate the strength required to throw the discus. I had to run from pillar-to-post for my selection in the Indian team. It was only when I won my first international medal (a silver in discus throw) at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Para Games that the attitude of people changed,” added the 32-year-old from Sonepat.

Jhajharia had his own poignant tale to share. 

“Since childhood, I was considered physically weak. My classmates would  make fun of my thin frame. To become physically stronger, I started participating in sports. But things took a turn for the worse. At eight,  while climbing a tree, I was electrocuted after accidently touching a live wire. This led to the amputation of my left arm. I would be taunted with comments like “tundla ho gaya hai” (his hand has become disabled). It was a nightmare.”

“In 1995, I participated in a district-level championship for students. All other participants were able-bodied. I became district champion after winning the tournament. That was the turning point of my life. Later, when I won  gold medal at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC) in 2002 and at the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004, I shut the mouth of all those who had told my parents that I wouldn’t be able to do anything in my life,” added the 36-year-old.

What keeps them going

“Simple, to see the Tricolour rise and hear the National Anthem during the medal ceremony. People who have never experienced it won’t understand. You can’t describe the feeling of pride in words,” said high-jumper Sharad Kumar, who won a silver medal at the recent World Para-athletics in London.

“It’s also our way of living with dignity. We para-athletes feel ignored and discriminated. But, we have found solace in sports. I only have problem with my leg but the able-bodied have problem with their mind and heart. They are more disabled than us,” added the 2014 Incheon Para Asian Games gold medalist, who suffered paralysis of his left leg after being administered wrong medicine for polio at the age of two.

Tragedy struck Sundar Singh Gurjar when he lost his left hand in a car accident in 2015. He created history by becoming the first Indian to win gold in men’s javelin throw event at the Worlds recently.

“I had been competing as a javelin thrower till that fateful evening. But, before anybody could point a finger at me, I made sure to continue pursuing my sports career. I didn’t want people to make fun of my disability.”

The gold at the Worlds was a redemption for Gurjar, who missed an announcement call for his name at the Rio Paralympics as he failed to understand the accent of the announcer. He reached the arena a minute late to find that he’d been disqualified.

“This shows the indifferent attitude of the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI). What exactly was the official attached to our contingent doing when my name was called? The PCI official should have ensured my participation. I was left to fend for myself,” Gurjar said.

Giving back to the game

In spite of the hardships faced by them, these shining lights of para-athletics are a role model for other differently abled athletes. Saroha spends his entire salary of Rs 40,000 per month — which he earns as a coach at the SAI’s Sonepat centre — on providing training and arranging for exposure trips abroad of some of his protégés like Dharambir Nain, Amit Balwan, Sunil, Rampal Chahar, Rinku Hooda and Ekta, among others. At present, Saroha is funding 17 para-athletes.

“If I’ll help others, only then God will help me,” said Saroha.

“Whatever cash award I receive from the Haryana government, I spend the amount on funding my trainees. I don’t want other para-athletes to go through the same struggle I was subjected to.”

Both Jhajharia and Deepa Malik, Rio Paralympics silver medallists from Haryana, have written to their respective state governments to provide them land to open a sports academy for para-athletes in Jaipur and Gurugram, respectively.

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