CHENNAI: As the Rio Paralympic Games came to a glorious, yet sombre, end at a packed Maracana Stadium on Sunday, one couldn't help but smile at the success of the event.
Initial fears were that interest levels were dwindling, given the Olympics had just finished two weeks prior, and because of the protests and issues hampering Brazil. But all that was thrown out the window, and the only adjective to describe the 15th edition of the Games is “success”.
Ticket sales were second only to London 2012, which made it one of the most successful Games in history! The biggest positive to come out, however, was the coverage the event and athletes generated. Given a stage to show that they belonged, and to excel, the para athletes gobbled the opportunity.
The same was true with Indians, as they continued to grow in strength. A haul of four medals (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), their joint-most ever, saw them finish 43rd on the table.
This leads us to a question that is hard to ignore — shouldn't Paralympians be afforded the same respect and recognition as Olympians? Different people have different views.
Devendra Jhajharia, gold winner in the F46 javelin throw event, feels things have become easier for para athletes in India since his initial success at the 2004 Athens Games. “After my gold in Athens, things have gotten better. Before that, facilities were almost zero, and we were not treated properly. But the government has played a bigger role thereon. I'm sure the next Paralympics (Tokyo 2020) will see India win at least ten medals,” said the world record holder.
Deepa Malik, who became the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic medal with her silver in F53 shotput, feels the process to bring disabled and able athletes on a par has already begun. “I never dreamed of the kind of reception I got when I arrived in New Delhi. This shows that slowly, people are becoming aware of us. That is the most important thing, the fact that people know and recognise your achievements, and don't look at you just as someone who is disabled. Most government policies allot equal prize money for disabled and able athletes, and we're also eligible for most awards. So things can only get better hereon.”
However, Girisha Hosanagara Nagarajegowda, silver medallist in the F42 high jump event four years ago, feels corporates do little to support para athletes. “Despite para athletes being more successful, they aren't supported or hailed as much as able-bodied sportspersons. Why this disparity? Also, there is barely any corporate sponsorship.
While the likes of Saina (Nehwal), (Abhinav) Bindra and (PV) Sindhu got so many sponsors after their success, we haven't had any such privileges. And while talk is of equality, let me point out that para athletes are not eligible for the Khel Ratna. Why is that? There are lots of such questions, but no answers. Until we are taken seriously, we will always be seen as the poorer cousins to the Olympians,” pleaded Girisha.
And he isn't wrong. There are lots of things that need to be sorted before para sports gets its due in the country. But for the time being, let us just bask in the glory of the success of these warriors.