The Tokyo Paralympics are about to begin from the 24th of August, 2021. Sportsavour got in touch with world no. 1 Para Badminton player, Pramod Bhagat, a serious gold medal contender at the Tokyo Games.
How does it make you feel that you will be playing in that edition of Paralympics in which Para Badminton makes its debut?
Pramod: It is an incredible feeling. The planning for introducing Para Badminton into the Paralympics probably started before 2012 London Games. In Rio 2016 , it looked set to happen. However, there were some issues and unfortunately, we had to wait another 4 years. Finally, Para Badminton has made its way into the Paralympics, and I will be participating in it. “Ye mere liye bohout special hai”(this is very special for me). All I want to do is win the event for my country, and I will give all I have to achieve that goal.
You will be participating in both the Singles and the Mixed Doubles events. Which one are you more eager to perform well in?
Pramod: Both of them are equally important to me. However, I am the reigning World No. 1. So I would like to focus a bit on the Singles event.
Since you will be participating in both events, you will get almost no time to rest your body in between events. How are you preparing for that?
Pramod: I’m definitely training more to get myself in peak athletic condition. However, I’m not too worried about it. I have played in 3 events (Singles, Doubles, Mixed Doubles) at the same tournament, a number of times before, and I’ve done quite well. Back in April, in Dubai, I won gold in both the Singles and Doubles events, and bronze in the Mixed Doubles. So I’m not too worried about it. For me, it is your mentality that matters, maybe even more than your physicality. If you can be mentally strong, you will be successful. Having said that, there will be definitely some added pressure as the event is Paralympics. But, I can do it.
Given the fact that this was India’s most successful Olympic campaign ever, do you think that adds pressure to perform better at the Paralympics?
Pramod: I always try to remain calm when I play, and give my 200%. I prefer playing with a free mind, unburdened by the weight of the score or the situation, no matter the state of the game. After P V Sindhu’s back to back medals at the Olympics, the entire nation will be looking at the Para Badminton players. We all will give our best. I hope our entire Paralympic contingent can get as many podium-finishes as possible, if not the gold medal. That will show the whole world that the para athletes are a force to be reckoned with.
What do you think has been the reason for the attention that para sports are getting in India recently?
Pramod: This mainly happened due to the great performance by the Indian para athletes at Rio in 2016. That made the Government, the media, and even the whole Indian sports audience, sit up and take notice. All of our para athletes are world class, with many of them being the world record holders. Our hard work started paying off as we progressively started bringing in more and more medals. So the Government started believing that these athletes will bring more medals and started investing. There are many new facilities now and our para athletes are even going to foreign facilities to train.
What is your support system like?
Pramod: TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) has been a huge help. Moreover, the Central Government and especially the Odisha State Government provided a lot of support. I didn’t even have to worry much during the COVID lockdown. They got me stadiums to practice at, a mini gym at home, etc. So the support to prepare for the Olympics was exceptionally good.
You had begun your sporting career as a Badminton player in general category. Did it get too hard for you, that you felt forced to shift to Para Badminton?
Pramod: I had already been playing Badminton for 4-5 years before I shifted to Para Badminton. I took this decision purely because it gave me a better opportunity. This is an expensive sport and you need to invest a lot at the outset, to get returns in the future. I hail from a middle class family, and at one point it simply became impossible for my parents to bear my sporting expenses any longer. So I had almost given up my dream of playing Badminton at the highest level. Back then I did not know anything about para sport and thought I was the only disabled athlete who played Badminton. But then in 2005, I came to know about Para Badminton for the first time and I have never looked back. My coaches were my ‘backbone’ and supported me a lot.
Have you ever had to face any discrimination because of your disability?
Pramod: Like I’ve already said before, I used to compete in Badminton tournaments and I was actually pretty good. Everyone knew it and so no one would mess with me. But the only problem was that there was very little recognition. My family had told me to give up the sport a few times, because they felt I was simply wasting my time. They told me to focus on my studies and get a job, so that I could lead an easier life. From 2005-2013 it was a very rough phase, since the sport in itself, was not well known. Things were so dire that even my friends asked me to rethink my stance about giving it up, since there were almost no opportunities. However, I firmly believed that patience would definitely lead to success. So I persisted with para sports and it all paid off in 2013 when I became the World No. 1. At present, I have more than a century of medals.
It has been a long journey for you to reach where you are. What has it been like?
Pramod: Like any athlete, it was a lot of struggle at first. Getting better at the game, starting to beat stronger opponents, becoming recognised, reaching the topmost rank, etc. it has been a very slow progress. However, having reached the position that I am in now, it has all been worth it.