Starting my thoughts about the journey of parasport development in India, it became clear to me that parasports – as probably everything else in our country – is influenced by our cultural heritage. However, there are also a variety of present-day challenges still to overcome.
India still spends more on prevention than on accessibility and opportunities. Only in 2001 did India include people with disabilities in the census. And the country’s most iconic monument and tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal, only got permanent ramps in 2009. 26 million people in the country currently do not have access to public transport, and to the most basic infrastructure like accessible toilets.
However, the Accessible India Campaign, launched in 2016, seems to be taking a step in the right direction; a direction away from the probably-coloured-by-heritage charity aspect and towards empowerment. The initiative has claimed that less than 50% of Indian Government buildings are accessible. A UNICEF report found that out of 2.9 million children with disabilities in India, 990,000 children aged 6 to 14 years (34 per cent) are not in school. The percentages are staggering among children with intellectual disabilities (48 per cent).
The Indian Government has a lot of pressing issues to finance before it can turn its attention to „luxuries“ like sport. This is an argument that even the most ardent sport lover cannot deny, when pointed out the number of families living below poverty line, who would not have food to eat if funds were diverted – to put it very simplistically.
So if we have such a long way to go in terms of providing basic support, there’s no hope for us at the Paralympic medal table, right?
No, because India is nothing if not a land of paradox. Indian Paralympians at the recent Rio Games in 2016 brought back 4 medals, while their Olympic counterparts brought back 2.
Indian Paralympic javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, after winning his 2nd ever Paralympic Gold for the country. Photo credit: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes.
So what makes some people strive for excellence, when even normalcy is difficult?
To answer this question I spoke to Sharath M. Gayakwad. Sharath is the first Indian para-athlete to qualify for the Paralympics in swimming at the London 2012 Summer Paralympic Games. He has earned more than 30 international and 40 national medals in swimming.
Sharath also works as a coach and is a successful entrepreneur, having recently been featured in the prestigious Forbes Under-30 Super-Achievers from Asia for the year 2017.
Indian Paralympic swimmer Sharath Gayakwad. Photo credit: Sharath Gayakwad.
Knowing that he has lived the reality of low accessibility and economic challenges, I asked Sharath about the motivation for his dedication to parasports. He answers promptly: „It is for the love of the sport.“
Where the work of the Government leaves much to be desired, it is individuals like Sharath and the private sector that are stepping in. Sharath himself has started a venture to bring analytics to swimming, and he speaks highly of GoSports Foundation as a core supporter in his career.
GoSports helps elite athletes by providing them mentorship, guiding them while applying for awards and to look for sponsors. Everything an Indian elite para-athlete is expected to look after by themselves. They organise workshops to educate athletes’ parents on how they can best support their budding stars; about 30% of them are para-athletes. Sharath says: „The best part about GoSports is that they don’t ever ask you to promote their organisation. We only talk about it because we are grateful for the support we receive.“
The most heartbreaking reality of economic development is the amount of wasted potential. Sharath was in a way lucky. Not undermining his struggles, nor the sacrifices of his family and support system, he was lucky because he got the opportunity to swim, and his talent was recognised. But without a talent identification and grassroot system, there are many Sharaths in the far reaches of this vast country, whose talents will never be tapped.
Indian Paralympic athlete Sharath Gayakwad working with kids. Photo credit: Sharath Gayakwad
India is the world’s 3rd largest start-up market, beaten only by USA and UK. It’s no wonder then that some of these start-ups are turning their eyes to fields like sport for all or grassroots parasports, and some to accessibility.
From mobile apps that help you find partners to play, rooftop 5-side football pitches in crowded cities, charitable organisations that develop parasport curriculums and work with schools to provide opportunities to all kids to play, to beach events organised especially for wheelchair users. It’s a vibrant and fast-growing country.
In a country that is generally inactive, where the effective European-style club system of sport is still in adolescence, and that idolises cricket far, far above any other sport, it’s not an easy task to bring about change. Therefore, Sharath also pointed out that he was disappointed by the uninformed behaviour of most mainstream media, something I had always noted with distaste. He recounted his personal experience at the London 2012 Paralympics, where the media ran headlines lamenting his „loss“, when in fact he had clocked personal bests in all his 4 events.
Summarizing a vast, diverse, complex, intricate and lively space like any field in India is always difficult for me. However, without sounding too naive I would like to believe that with a lot of work, gradual progress can be made and a path laid to reach the Paralympic podium.
It involves setting up structures and systems of early exposure to sports and talent identification, incorporating and incentivising private players to supply additional funds to training the elite, timely provision of infrastructure, support from the media and the lay person, and finally building an active national culture. Not a small challenge, by any standards.
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