In spite of giving their best ever performance in the Deaflympics -clinching five medals, including a gold- Indian contingent of hearing impaired athletes returned home without any recognition. There was not a single official from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) or the sports ministry in the airport to welcome them. Visibly upset with this apathy, the athletes refused to leave the airport and staged a 6-hour protest before Dilip Singh, a project officer with SAI, reached the airport to receive them.
“The Indian contingent participated in a total of eight disciplines at the games. Out of those eight disciplines, we won medals in three. We won gold and bronze in wrestling, bronze in lawn tennis and silver in golf,” said Ketan Shah, the team’s interpreter. The gold medal for India was won by Virender Singh in 74kg freestyle wrestling competition. This was the fourth successive medal – three gold and a bronze-for Virender at the Deaflympics.
The contingent, consisting of 46 athletes and support staff, were upset with the government and the Sports Ministry as they wanted to speak to Sports Minister Vijay Goel but he did not pay any heed to their request. However, after the protest, the SAI official took them to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where they were given the desired welcome.
The indifference towards para athletes was earlier proved when medal winners, in the recently concluded World Para Athletics Championship, returned quietly to their respective homes. Sundar Singh Gurjar, Amit Saroha, Karamjyoti Dalal, Sharad Kumar and Varun Bhati won 1gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze all together. But hardly anyone acknowledged their feat or the media went crazy for them.
But the greatest apathy, perhaps, was faced by Kanchanmala Pande, a completely blind para-athlete swimmer from Nagpur. Pande, who swims in the S11 category, was left to beg on the streets of Berlin, was forced to borrow money from a friend and was reportedly fined for traveling without a ticket on public transport during the Para-Swimming Championships. Pande had to foot her expenses for lodging and food, after the sponsorship money from Sports Authority of India was not released by Paralympic Committee of India (PCI). “I was not given any official confirmation if I would receive a reimbursement for the expenses I bore. I had to pay around Rs 70,000 (£844) for the hotel and more than Rs 40,000 (£482) for food,” Kanchanmala told. Though, Sports Minister Vijay Goel sought a report from the PCI on how Kanchanmala Pande was left to fend for herself without money in Berlin, yet there is no progress on the investigation.
Despite this Pande won a silver medal and qualified for the World Championships. Abhinav Bindra was among the first celebrated athletes from the country to express outrage against this shameful incident. The Olympic gold medal winner even immediately helped Kanchanmala win a scholarship of Rs 3 lakh from GoSports Foundation.
Though the para athletes win more international medals than their normal counterparts, they are still treated indifferently. Those athletes face a kind of stigma as referred by Devendra Jhajharia, the first Indian to clinch two gold medals at Paralympics. Jhajharia said, “During an event in my teens, one of the coaches asked my coach why he trained me, a handicapped boy, when there was lot others who could perform better.”
To sum up with the words of Deepa Malik, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics, “In my country, accessibility and infrastructure are two of the major problems. There are no toilets for normal people, forget having ones for the disabled. In addition to all of these, societal pressure and cultural assumptions would often kill individual potentials.”