Kerala's dwarf athletes stand tall, dream big

Despite stellar wins on the international stage, the state’s dwarf athletes are unable to continue their dream journey due to a slew of factors, with society’s labelling and a shortage of funds making the bulk of it
Little People Sports Club team poses with their trophies
Little People Sports Club team poses with their trophies

KOCHI: A podium finish in her very first attempt at the national para-badminton championship has left Suranya Surendran feeling elated. This euphoria does not come so often for the 120cm-tall Vypeen native, whom society is quick to label as ‘inadequate’ for big, extraordinary things. Now, with this victory, the 30-year-old believes that change is on the horizon.

Suranya won the bronze medal in the mixed doubles category at the games. She is not alone. In the dwarf category, she is joined on the podium by her doubles partner Nithin K T, who hails from Kozhikode; and C S Baiju and Alan Jose, who won bronze in the men’s doubles category. Kodungallur native Baiju also won bronze in the men’s singles game.

Having won the nationals, the athletes are now eligible to participate in national events such as the Khelo India Youth Games and even represent the country in international events. However, the cost that these contests may incur bothers the four.

“For the state selection, I played the doubles barefoot. Luckily, I got a sponsor for the nationals. That’s how I could at least show up for the game. I’m trying for a government job now. My mother runs a small eatery. She alone can’t foot the cost of my sporting aspirations,” says Suranya, who completed her BTech from Cusat.

Rays of hope

Financial constraints are no doubt preventing a lot of talented youngsters like Suranya from spreading their wings. Realising this, magician Charlie had in 2020 started Little People Trust to ensure that dwarfs in Kerala are also afforded ample opportunities to chase their dreams without worrying about funds.

“Our aim is to show that these people too have the same potential as any other person. We have been quite successful at that and now has over 200 members,” says Joby A S, actor and president of Little People Trust.

Members of Little People Sports Club during a football match
Members of Little People Sports Club during a football match

If the organisation primarily works in the realm of arts, the Little People Sports Club provides opportunities for them in the domain of sports. Started in 2020 by Rashid K K, a native of Kannur and a certified football coach, it is a one-of-its-kind club in Kerala exclusively for dwarfs.

“There are a lot of talented sportspersons among the dwarf community. Sadly, they have not received much attention or support. With this club, I want to dispel the idea that ‘little people’ are capable of only doing clownery,” says Rashid.

The group which started with four members now boasts 25 sportspersons. Of them, five are women. “With ample financial backing, we can accommodate more players and provide consistent training. Last year, we missed out on an opportunity to represent our country in the football World Cup, held in Argentina, due to a shortage of funds,” says Rashid.

Though the group had sent a memo to the sports minister, nothing came of it. “We want funds in acknowledgement of our talent and not out of sympathy,” he adds.

Crisis even for stars

Champion dwarf athlete Akash S Madhavan too finds it difficult to maintain his rankings in world badminton as he misses out on international competitions due to inadequate support.

“From 6th rank, my doubles partner Gokul Das and I have slipped to 11th. An athlete has to take part in open tournaments that come in between big games to maintain their ranks. We missed out on several games due to financial crunch,” Akash says.

In his maiden attempt at the World Dwarf Games in 2013, the Malappuram native had clinched silver in shotput and bronze in discus throw. Four years later, in the 2017 games, the 130cm-tall Akash won bronze in the javelin throw. That year also saw India romp home big on the world stage with 37 medals, including 15 gold. “There were three Keralites in the 2013 event— C S Baiju, Joby Mathew and myself,” says Akash.

Later, to stay at the forefront of the sports world, Akash made the strategic decision to pursue badminton. “Even after winning so many contests, we have not received any recognition nor monetary support from any sports body in Kerala,” he says. This, he explains, is a sharp contrast to what athletes enjoy in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where athletes who win world games are given up to `10 lakh. “Even if we don’t receive awards, if the government can meet our travel expenses, that would be a big help,” Akash adds.

C S Baiju echoes the same concern. “I couldn’t participate in the 2017 World Games due to a lack of funds. I earn a living by selling lottery tickets. It is difficult to run a family with my meagre income. I could attend and win bronze at the recently held Para badminton championship only because of crowdfunding,” Baiju says.

Everyday reality

It was three years ago that Muhammad Shafeeq, who works as a supervisor in an exporting company in Nagapattinam, embraced swimming. He has since won over 23 medals in the sport. “I’ve been taking professional classes. However, it is difficult to practice regularly due to financial constraints. This affects the quality of our game,” says the Malappuram native.

Twenty-year-old bodybuilder Abhijith P P was adjudged Mr South India this year. His training regiment incurs a cost of `6,000 monthly. “I meet this expense through scholarships I receive from college. But often, I have to rely on my mother’s income to meet this expenditure,” he says.

Abhijith P P
Abhijith P P

“Since the college has a gym, I have access to some basic training. Many don’t even have that. I feel we have the right to secure benefits,” says Mohammed Hashir P, who won gold in the state para-athletics.

Priya Mathew, who secured second place in discus throw at the state-level competition feels that regular training is key to improve the quality of their game. “A majority of dwarf athletes are struggling on this front. Also, we tend to have health ailments in the case of over exertion. So, proper training is a must,” says the 112cm-tall woman.

What authorities say

Until 2024, the Sports Association for the Differently-abled of Kerala, the body which is affiliated with the Paralympic Committee of India, was not recognised by the Kerala Sports Council. As a result, it was difficult for differently-abled athletes to secure financial benefits or job opportunities.

“Now that the association is recognised, the members would be receiving benefits as defined by the Kerala Sports Council. The players who go for national and international championships will be receiving financial aid. More than financial benefit, the certificates will have validity now. This will help them in getting reservations for education and job opportunities as well,” clarifies U Sharaf Ali, Kerala State Sports Council president.

“Annually, 50 sportspersons are qualified in sports quota reservations. Para category has a reservation of two seats. In the past five years, athletes weren’t appointed in sports quota. This year a list of 250 sportspersons is prepared, and the decisions regarding jobs will be discussed soon,” says an official from the sports minister’s office.

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