When swimmer C N Janaki swam across a part of the English Channel in July 1992, she knew that her achievement would be an encouragement for many like her. Janaki dared to challenge her limitation-her two useless legs that were polio-affected since she was of 2 years. She used mainly her upperbody to swim, still she ventured out to cross the brutal and exhausting path of the Channel. And she succeeded; she succeeded in becoming the first disabled person to swim across the English Channel.
C N Janaki was an inspiration…but little did she know that she will inspire a fellow Bangalorean so much that he would one day become a path-breaker. That person is Venkatesh Yethiraj – a 4 feet 2 inches tall para sportsman from India who made a mark in the field of sport through his sheer dedication and determination.
Venkatesh was born with Achondroplasia, a cause that leads to Dwarfism. He was short-statured and obviously was an object of curiosity. But his family was always supportive. He was the youngest of five siblings and was very dear to each one of them. They never let him feel different from others. So Venkatesh grew up as a normal child who was neither afraid of curiousness nor ashamed of his stature.
When he was a student, Venkatesh Yethiraj played chess. As the game required no physical activity, he faced no discrimination in school and college. He even represented many inter and intra college tournaments to his best ability. And then came C N Janaki’s feat.
“I was motivated by C N Janaki. I thought if she can do in spite of being a Paraplegic why I, having legs and hands, can’t do something extraordinary. At that point the spirit and love for sports aroused in me.”
Venkatesh started building his sporting career. He practiced badminton, played volleyball, was a descent javelin and disuss thrower and sometimes did shotput too. Seeing his enthusiasm in so many sports, his father, who was also his first coach, thought of putting Venkatesh under serious training. And soon the ‘little man’ excelled in various fields.
His versatility put him in the leader’s league and there came the chance to represent India in the first International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships held in Berlin, Germany (then West Germany) in 1994.
“I was very happy to represent India and participated in the historic stadium constructed by Adolf Hitler. It was the place where our Indian Hockey team had won gold medal in 1936 Olympics. It was a different feeling.”
Though, Yethiraj could not win a medal in his first international competition, but the memory is etched in his heart. It was also after that competition there was no looking back for the man.
In the midst of all these, Venkatesh completed his graduation from MES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Bengaluru. But sports was always in his mind. He kept on participating in domestic competitions and that too in different disciplines. Impossible was nothing to him at that stage as he claimed gold one after the other. Starting from 1997 in Special Paralympics held in Chennai till 7th National Badminton for Challenged held in Bengaluru, Venkatesh won 23 national gold medal.
Though Venkatesh was highly successful in domestic tournaments, an international medal lured him. In 1999, that dream came true when Yethiraj won his first international gold medal for shotput in Multi Disability Championship held in Australia.
“It was an event to remember not only because I won my first international medal over there but also for some serious administrative commotion. Before leaving for the Championship, some of our Para players couldn’t get visa. We were all dejected but we decided to go directly to the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Fortunately we met the officials there, had a chance to brief them about the situation. They understood and granted us visa but not before we gave an undertaking that we would be coming back to India. We missed the Opening Ceremony…but when I won the gold everyone forgot the hiccups. We all celebrated each other’s success.”
In 2005, Venkatesh Yethiraj became the first Indian athlete to represent India at the World Dwarf Games. It was the 4th edition of the Games held in France. The World Dwarf Games is held exclusively for the people with Dwarfism every 4 years in different locations. It was here that the ‘little giant’ from India won six medals – gold in discuss throw, team gold in hockey, team silver in football and bronze in badminton, shotput and volleyball. His achievement in this Games had put his name in the Limca Book of Records as the highest medal winner in World Dwarf Games.
Till 2012, Yethiraj competed in international events. He has a glorious international sporting career where he finished with 12 gold medal, 8 silver medal and 10 bronze medal. He has set an example for all those who want to place themselves in the winners’ league. It’s just self-belief and will-power that can put away all disabilities for achieving the best.
Though he retired from professional sports, his contribution still continues. He is now a successful administrator and promoter of different sports among people with disabilities in our country. In 2005, he set up the Dwarf Association of India to promote sports among dwarfs in India.
“As there was no National Sports Association for Dwarfs, during the 2005 World Dwarf Games, I met the International President who told me to take the responsibility for developing Sports for the Dwarfs in India. Along with some fellow para athletes, I set up the association and named it as Dwarf Sports Association of India. We took affiliation from the International Dwarf Association in United Kingdom.”
As the Para Olympic Committee of India does not recognize their association, Venkatesh and his companions find it difficult to run it financially. But still they have successfully set up 9 state associations under the national body.
“Some state government’s is supporting, but our Central Government should come forward to support the Dwarf Sports. In other countries the situation is totally different. They are sponsored by big companies and even Governments support them. They come in with a big contingent including team officials like doctors, therapists and others. But we send small contingent, still our players perform well.”
It is to be noted that in the recently concluded World Dwarf Games held in Canada, India finished 10th in medal standing with 14 gold, 10 silver and 12 bronze.
C N Janaki was an inspiration for Venkatesh Yethiraj. But this man himself turned out to be a motivator for the likes of Mark Dharmai, Ruhi Singhade, Devappa More and others.
“Do you know that Devappa More is a farmer? His height is 3 feet 2 inches, he praticices in his own land, he doesn’t have any coach but still wins medals. Mark Dharmai, Ruhi Singhade, Simran are all brilliant athletes. They are immensely talented, win medals for our country…only they need is a little recognition. They must have their dues.”