Since its Paralympic debut in 1968, India has had its best outing at the Tokyo Games thanks to its gutsy athletes who overcame all hurdles to script glory for themselves and the country
By Chandra Shekhar Luthra
When the 2020 Olympics ended, India was on a high, especially after Neeraj Chopra’s gold on the final day. Little did we know that the high would soar even higher. Indian athletes have created history by performing exceptionally well at the Tokyo Paralympics. India ended ranked 24th, with a total of 19 medals.
This came at a time when Covid-19 challenges made it difficult for Indian Paralympians to get even basic facilities or the system’s encouragement to go out and practise since March 2020. Getting practice or training facilities during the complete lockdown was difficult for India’s Olympic-bound athletes, so it was doubly so for our Paralympians for whom reaching nearby stadiums was a problem.
The limited camps that were to be conducted by the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) were cancelled because of the pandemic. Globally, this was the normal situation which forced most para athletes to train solo. According to a study by an American agency, “the level of isolation experienced over the last one-and-a-half-years was especially difficult for these athletes, as connecting with teammates and coaches has been an integral part of maintaining healthy mental well-being through the pressures of preparing for the Games”.
At Tokyo, India’s para athletes won 19 medals. Badminton and taekwondo debuted in Tokyo, both of which had participation from India.
The gold medallists from the Indian contingent at Tokyo were Avani Lekhara (women’s 10 m air rifle standing SH1), Pramod Bhagat (men’s badminton singles SL3), Krishna Nagar (men’s badminton singles SH6), Sumit Antil (men’s javelin F64), and Manish Narwal (mixed 50 m pistol SH1).
India notched up a staggering eight silver medals. They were won by Bhavinaben Patel (women’s table tennis singles class 4), Singhraj Adhana (mixed 50 m pistol SH1), Yogesh Kathuniya (men’s discus F56), Nishad Kumar (men’s high jump T47), Mariyappan Thangavelu (men’s high jump T63), Praveen Kumar (men’s high jump T64), Devendra Jhajharia (men’s javelin F46), and Suhas Yathiraj (men’s badminton singles SL4).
Bronze medals were won by Avani Lekhara (women’s 50 m rifle 3 positions SH1), Harvinder Singh (men’s archery individual recurve), Sharad Kumar (men’s high jump T63), Sundar Singh Gurjar (men’s javelin F46), Manoj Sarkar (men’s badminton singles SL3), and Singhraj Adhana (men’s 10 m air pistol SH1).
This is even more remarkable as, since its first appearance at the Paralympics in 1968, India had won just 12 medals, including the 2016 Rio Games. The country has now improved massively on that figure with an additional seven medals in Tokyo.We take a closer look at India’s medal winners at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics:
- Avani Lekhara (Shooting, Gold & Bronze)
The 19-year-old Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win a Games gold (10 m air rifle) and later added a bronze in the 50 m rifle 3 positions.
Confined to a wheelchair since an accident at the age of 11 in 2012, Avani was inspired to take up shooting after reading Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography where he detailed his journey to becoming an Olympic champion. She took up shooting in 2015 as a hobby after her father took her to a range during a summer vacation.
As her coach, Suma Shirur, puts it, Avani is a great fighter, which is true of all Paralympians. She is the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic gold medal and only the second Indian to win multiple medals at the same Games. Avani won gold in the women’s 10 m air rifle standing SH1 – India’s first in the sport – and followed it up with bronze in the women’s 50 m rifle 3 positions SH1.
These two medals were from the four events she participated in (mixed 10 m air rifle prone SH1 and the mixed 50 m rifle prone event being the other two).Even for many able-bodied rifle shooters, balancing the 10 m and 50 m 3P is a challenging task. The distance is not the only difference; the match time and endurance needed are virtually tripled. But Avani shot down medals in both events in the span of a week with a world record score of 239.7.
- Sumit Antil (Javelin, Gold)
The most stunning performance by an Indian at the Tokyo Paralympics came from Sumit Antil. He didn’t just win gold in the Men’s Javelin throw F64, he won by breaking the world record mark three times during the final.
Sumit’s journey to the top was not that easy after his dreams of becoming a wrestler were dashed when he met with an accident and his leg had to be amputated. However, he was introduced to para sport and the rest is history.
Sumit shattered the world record five times during the event. He started with 66.95 m in his very first attempt, which broke his own previous personal best of 62.88 m by a sizeable margin. He then improved upon that on his second attempt with a massive effort of 68.08 m as he led the field from the start. His next two attempts were 65.27 m and 66.71 m, both of which would have broken the record he had set at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. But he saved the best for later as he threw 68.55 m to better his new world record another time.
- Manish Narwal (Shooting, Gold)
The 19-year-old Manish Narwal comes from a sports-oriented family in Ballabhgarh in Haryana and always wanted to become a football player. But his impairment from birth meant he couldn’t quite fulfil his dream.
Manish has an inborn impairment to his right hand and he can’t raise it, not even while accepting the medal, as we saw, but his left arm was good enough to lift the pistol and win the gold.
After picking up shooting at the age of 15 in 2016, Manish rose to rank 13 in the world at the age of just 16 and has been a consistently top performer since 2017. He was already a world champion when he reached Tokyo in P4 mixed 50 m pistol SH1 and he left with a Paralympic record and a gold medal.
- Pramod Bhagat (Badminton, Gold)
Shuttler Pramod Bhagat, who won gold in the SL3 category, did not have enough money to buy even a badminton racquet in the early stages of his career. Bhagat, from Bihar’s Hajipur town in Vaishali district, had natural aptitude for sport.
But he became a polio victim when he was just five. Inadequate medication meant his leg was deformed. It was difficult for his family to buy a badminton racquet for him in the early days. Then his uncle and aunt managed to buy one and he started playing badminton while studying in Bhubaneswar. And he was known there for beating all the able-bodied players.
Pramod won the men’s singles SL3 gold, beating Great Britain’s Daniell Bethell. This was India’s first medal in badminton at the Paralympics. Bhagat was eight points behind in the second game before making a comeback and wrapping up the match 21-14, 21-17.
- Krishna Nagar (Badminton, Gold)
Krishna Nagar’s father, Sunil Nagar, was told when his son was one-and-a-half years old that the boy would face growth stagnancies. Diagnosed with dwarfism, Krishna at four feet three inches became a loner after being bullied till even five years ago in college. He stopped going out and interacting with friends. At this time, in 2017, he took up badminton as a hobby.
His father decided to take his son to a badminton academy at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium in Jaipur. The move turned out to be a watershed moment in Krishna’s life.
His father only told him one thing, that he “might not be able to help him grow tall, but he certainly could learn to jump as high as he wished”. And Krishna claimed a gold in the men’s singles SH6 category, India’s 19th and last medal at Tokyo, by beating Hong Kong’s Chu Man Kai 21-17, 16-21, 21-17 in the men’s singles SH6 final.
Krishna tried high jump, long jump, volleyball and basketball with younger brother, Raghav, who is five feet eight. Though he didn’t become a champion in all those disciplines, it certainly helped him jump to smash in badminton.
- Bhavinaben Patel (Table Tennis, Silver)
Bhavinaben Patel signed off with a historic silver medal in her maiden Paralympic Games after going down 0-3 to world No. 1 Chinese paddler Ying Zhou in the women’s singles class 4 final. The 34-year-old, who was afflicted with polio as a toddler, was lucky to have got a robot as a practice partner during the Covid-19 pandemic when it was almost impossible for her to continue preparations for the Paralympics. Bhavinaben got the robot through the Sports Authority of India’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) scheme.
A robot provides advantages such as getting shots from different angles. And that helped Bhavinaben improve her game at the right time before the Games.
- Nishad Kumar (High Jump, Silver)
Nishad Kumar’s father, Rashpal, is a mason and mother, Pushpa Devi, is a homemaker. They live in their ancestral village of Badaun in Amb, Himachal Pradesh.
Nishad lost his right hand to a tragic accident at the age of eight. He had accidentally put his hand into a fodder-cutting machine. But that didn’t stop him from winning a silver medal in the men’s high jump T47 event with an Asian record of 2.06 m. Nishad’s life changed after he secured admission to Chandigarh’s DAV College and started training under athletics coaches Naseem Ahmed and Vikram at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula.
- Yogesh Kathuniya (Discus, Silver)
Yogesh Kathuniya was suffering from paralysis at the age of seven and his mother, Meena Devi, was told about his rare neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome.
His mother would tie him to her scooty’s pillion seat and take him for treatment at the Chandimandir Military Station Army Hospital near Chandigarh. Yogesh was confined to a wheelchair in 2006 but his mother’s constant effort to provide him regular physiotherapy paid off as he started taking part in para sports in 2017 while studying at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College.His hard work and determination finally won him a silver medal in the men’s discus throw F56 event.
- Devendra Jhajharia (Javelin, Silver)
At 40, when most able-bodied athletes bid goodbye to competitive sport, Devendra Jhajharia clinched his third Paralympic medal, a silver this time.
Jhajharia, who lost his left hand after accidentally touching a live electricity wire while climbing a tree at the age of eight, was already India’s greatest Paralympian after winning gold medals in the 2004 and 2016 Games in the F46 classification.
He won this silver by pulling off a new world record and personal best throw of 64.35 m. But gold winner Sri Lankan Dinesh Priyan Herath Mudiyanselage was too good for the entire field, spearheading the javelin to 67.79 m.
- Mariyappan Thangavelu (Long Jump, Silver)
Mariyappan Thangavelu won silver in the men’s high jump final in the T42 class by leaping to a mark of 1.86 m.
He was initially given the honour of being the flagbearer at the opening ceremony, but ultimately could not participate as he had been in close contact with a Covid-positive person. Thankfully, he was not positive and was allowed to compete.
This is his second Paralympic medal, after gold at Rio 2016. Mariyappan and the US’s Sam Grewe achieved the 1.86 m mark on their third attempts while Sharad had to be satisfied with a bronze after seeing three red flags.
F/T42 classification in track and field is for athletes with a leg deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement in the legs, with athletes competing in a standing position.
Now, he wants to work for the state government in Tamil Nadu. Mariyappan also has plans of setting up an academy in Salem or Coimbatore to develop the next generation of athletes.
- Singhraj Adhana (Shooting, Silver and Bronze)
At the end of May this year 39-year-old Singhraj Adhana contracted Covid and his oxygen saturation level dropped below 50. A diabetic, he spent more than a week in the ICU after getting a bed only when a local MLA helped.
All through, Singhraj kept pictures of his grandfather, Subedar Major Sumera Ram Adhana, a World War II veteran of the British Indian Army and winner of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal and Military Cross, to motivate himself.
Despite the relatively short period of practice after recovery, he won silver in the P4 mixed 50 m pistol SH1 and a bronze in the P1 men’s 10 m air pistol SH1.
- Praveen Kumar (High Jump, Silver)
A couple of years ago, when high jumper Praveen Kumar was trying to get admission to Delhi University under the normal sports quota, he was denied on the basis that he was “differently-abled”.
The authorities told his mentor and coach, Dr Satyapal Singh, to apply through the differently-abled quota, which is a much easier route to college admission.
But Praveen refused to follow the advice and made calls to top university administrators to at least allow him to appear in the trials. And he finished second in the trials, competing against able-bodied athletes, and bagged a B.A. seat through the sports quota.
This was one of many victories against the system which was hell-bent on proving him less capable than others. In Class IX, he was denied entry in the high jump competition of a school-level sports meet. H fought and competed, winning gold.
In Tokyo, the debutant 18-year-old clinched the silver medal in the men’s high jump T64 event while setting a new Asian record with a 2.07 m jump to finish behind Great Britain’s Jonathan Broom-Edwards.
- Suhas Yathiraj (Badminton, Silver)
Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj became the first civil servant to represent India at the Paralympics. Currently district magistrate in Gautam Buddh Nagar, he won a historic silver after going down fighting against top seed Lucas Mazur of France in the men’s singles SL4 class. The 38-year-old, who has an impairment in an ankle, proved his belief that “sports helps you to overcome fear and to maintain your body and mind”.
Suhas is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 2007 batch and had little time to train as he was tackling the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic since joining his current posting in April 2020.
- Sundar Singh Gurjar (Javelin, Bronze)
Till 2015, Sundar Singh Gurjar was competing in able-bodied javelin competitions and was even part of the junior national camp along with Tokyo Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra.
Sundar, who has now won his maiden Paralympic bronze, battled not just loss of limb but also suicidal thoughts after a metal sheet fell on him at a friend’s house, leading to amputation of his left hand. His coach, Mahavir Saini, motivated him to carry on with life and return to the turf in the para athlete category. In a year’s time, he had qualified for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, but once again felt shattered when he was disqualified at the Games.
He won gold in the 2017 and 2019 World Para Athletics Championships besides winning a silver in the 2018 Jakarta Para Asian Games. The Jaipur-based Sundar finished third at Tokyo with a best effort of 64.01 m, behind Jhajharia in the Men’s Javelin throw F46 final.
- Sharad Kumar (High Jump, Bronze)
High jumper Sharad Kumar faced the trauma of bullying ever since childhood. Polio affected his left leg after he was given a fake polio vaccine. Sharad was planning to withdraw from the final in Tokyo as he had got injured during a practice session just before. The 29-year-old spoke to his family about it and it was then that his father told him to recite the Bhagwad Gita and just concentrate on his event. It was not easy for a disturbed Sharad but he put all his energy into following the advice of his father.
A bronze in the men’s high jump at the National Stadium in Tokyo in the T42 class after scaling his season-best mark of 1.83 m means the world to Bihar’s first Paralympic medallist. Sharad studied in Delhi’s Modern School and got a master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
- Harvinder Singh (Archery, Bronze)
India’s first Paralympic medal winning archer, Harvinder Singh, turned his farm in a Punjab village into a practice ground during the lockdown.
The 31-year-old Harvinder had dengue when he was just one-and-a-half years old and a local doctor administered an injection that had an adverse effect. His legs stopped working properly. But that didn’t stop this economics scholar from Punjabi University, Patiala, from putting in extra hard work to win a historic archery bronze in the men’s individual recurve. Before this, he was the first athlete from India to win a gold medal at a major para competition in the 2018 Asian Games.
- Manoj Sarkar (Badminton, Bronze)
Manoj Sarkar won the bronze medal after beating Daisuke Fujihara 22-20, 21-13 in the men’s singles SL3 event. The 31-year-old earlier crashed to an 8-21, 10-21 defeat in the semifinals against Great Britain’s Daniel Bethell.
The 31-year-old Manoj, whose right leg was affected after he contracted polio as a one-year-old, took up badminton at age five but it was the passion to win against his elder brothers that led him to play the sport seriously. He did inter-school competitions against able-bodied players till Class XI before starting to compete in para-badminton in 2011.He won a gold in the SL3 singles at the 2016 Asian Championships in Beijing. In 2018, he received the Arjuna Award and a year later, he was named Para Sportsman of the Year at the Sportstar Aces Awards.
(The author is a senior sports journalist.)