Being Indian means a lot of different things for different people, but one thing that is standard is the sometimes overwhelming feeling of being almost weighed down by thousands of years of culture. So when I started thinking about the journey and development of parasport in India, I decided to begin at the beginning – by looking at the two major Sanskrit epics on ancient India: The Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Whether the specific events actually took place or not, it is said that every emotion conceivable to humankind has been dealt with by the complex characters in these stories. So what better place to start looking at India’s view towards parasports?
Whilst one can find clear references to physical culture in the Vedic age – with sources indicating that it is more than likely that some of today's sports disciplines are sophisticated versions of the games that flourished in ancient Indian culture – there isn’t any reference to an over-riding outlook in society on how to deal with any physical or mental impairment; since this isn’t the way the epics are written.
However, there are numerous references to compassion for people with disabilities. Albeit with an element of charity as a motive, so far so good, we seem to be doing better than other ancient cultures. So although I could find not find much conclusive evidence to the acceptance of or cruelty towards disability in our ancient texts, the only thing I can conclusively say is that Indian society has been struggling with dealing with these questions since time immemorial.
But even if we as Indians were ahead of our times in the Vedic Age in a positive way, somewhere along the way, we got distracted with other things. In current day, life as a differently abled person is almost as independent as Bran Stark before he received his shiny, new wheelchair. Still India spends more on prevention than on accessibility and opportunities. And this is clearly mirrored by the status quo of parasports.
To unravel the riddle of the state of parasport in India today, I spoke to Sharath M. Gayakwad, the first ever Indian swimmer to qualify for the Paralympic Games, and placing 9th in the 50m breaststroke event during at London 2012. He currently holds the record for the most number of medals won at a major multi-parasport event by an Indian.
Indian Paralympic swimmer Sharath Gayakwad. Photo credit: Sharath Gayakwad.
Yet Sharath’s beginnings were modest, and he remains down to earth and approachable. Like many of our Indian success stories, Sharath gained major support only after he blew away the coaches at the National Championships.
His coach John Christopher had no prior experience of training a para-athlete. So, when I asked him how he went about the training, he answered: „It was only through many trails, lots of research and in-depth discussions between my coach and me that my technique and training could be adapted from that of other non-adaptive swimmers.“
However, the long and arduous path that he and his coach undertook to discover a training plan that was successful has not yet been documented anywhere. So we are lucky that Sharath himself has turned into a coach and entrepreneur, and wants to bring the joy of sports to as many kids as possible.
But a process does not yet exist in India where these investments can be capitalised on, and used to boost the next generation of differently abled swimmers. Wasted potential. Sharath points out that a coach’s role is much more than coaching in India. He is also responsible for talent identification, for emotional guidance, nutritional advice or, as he put it: „Whatever the athlete needs“.
Sharath with five of his six medals from the 2014 Asian Para Games. Photo credit: Sportskeeda
When asked about one critical improvement that the Indian Government could put in place, he promptly answers: „The issue isn’t that facilities, funds and infrastructure don‘t exist, it is more the problem of timing. For example, when I was competing, there were times I was only informed the day before an international tournament that all the documents had been approved, and I was competing the next day. That’s not enough time to mentally prepare for a meet“.
In spite of all the trials of being a para-athlete in India, Sharath maintains: „Things are already different since I started competing. The situation continues to improve“. On paper, it looks like the formalities are in place. The Paralympic Committee of India came into existence in 1992, and about 2,000 athletes took to the field at the latest National Championships.
But knowing that he has lived the reality in spite of facing financial struggles, I asked Sharath about his motivation to remain in the sport. He answers promptly: „It is only for the love of the sport. I had many other opportunities along the way, but I turned them all down to keep doing what I love“.
I for one will be happy when this is a motivating factor, but certainly not the only award for dedicating your entire youth to a risky and challenging profession, and overcoming odds to bring home medals to India.
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