We as Indians may not be the most athletics crazy country but the names of athletic legends like P.T. Usha and Milkha Singh would definitely be familiar to all. These were Indian athletic legends that came within a whisker of winning an Olympic medal for the country. But ever since they missed out on their Olympic medal, India has eternally awaited one in track and field events.
Could it be faintly possible though that our collective eyes and minds have overlooked a gold medal? Not any gold medal, but an Olympic gold medal that was won by setting a world record. It could come as a surprise that an Indian athlete has held a world record for over 11 years and counting, and his gold medal winning feat had come about in the Olympic games at Athens, 2004. The record still stands, untouched and unbroken.
This world record holder and Olympic gold medalist is Devendra Jhajharia, a Padma Shri, Arjuna awardee, parathlete representing India as a javelin thrower. His world record is for the longest javelin throw ever by a man with a single functional arm. His left arm is amputated below the elbow, and with his single able arm he has raised the tricolour and brought to India what no other able-bodied Indian has in an athletic track and field event – a world record and an individual Olympic gold.
To put this in perspective, except for a solitary bronze way back in 1952, India had nothing to show for itself in the form of an individual Olympic medal right up to 1996. This bronze was converted to gold only in 2008 by Abhinav Bindra, and still remains the solitary Indian gold for an individual Olympic event. Compared to this, Murlikant Petkar had won India a gold medal way back in the 1972 Paralympics, with a world record time in 50 metres freestyle swimming. Devendra won his gold at Athens, 2004. Thus, statistically India’s parathletes are out doing their able bodied contemporaries and doing so in a style of their own, by setting world records.
As luck would have it, Devendra’s javelin throw event was subsequently excluded from the Olympics after Athens 2004. He lost out during his prime years as an athlete and went into oblivion without participating in Olympic or other noteworthy international events. He is now in his mid-thirties and attempting a comeback to reclaim the gold in the Rio Olympics, 2016, where his event has been included once again. Although well past his prime and subsequent to a protracted layoff, he has secured a silver medal at the recently concluded IPC Athletics World Championships at Doha, Qatar and the Asian Games, 2015. The world championships are to athletic track and field events what a world cup is to any other sport.
Another medal came India’s way at these World Championships. A silver medal with an Asian record by Amit Kumar Saroha, in the club throw event. In this event, a club (a miniature baseball bat) is flung by quadriplegic participants, in a wheelchair that is tightly secured to the ground. Amit was rendered a quadriplegic, after a cervical spinal injury, with minimal function in the upper extremities and shoulders, and no muscular function below the shoulders. This minimal function allows him to barely get a grip on the club and fling it away. But what make his achievement even more remarkable are the circumstances in which he won the country a medal. The event was played in the scorching heat of the Arabian Gulf nearing mid-afternoon. He was running a fever in excess of 101 degrees Fahrenheit for three days including the day of the event and had a cut on the fingers of his gripping hand. That’s some performance in adversity!
Girisha H. Nagarajagowda is another Indian who successfully leapt, on a single able foot, to win a silver medal in the last edition of the Olympics in London. There are many other proud participants of the Indian contingent who attempt to conquer their disabilities in the hope of winning an Olympic medal for the nation. The story isn’t only about those that have succeeded in bringing India medals, for this is sport and your performance might not be up to the mark on a given day of competition.
The feats accomplished at these athletic events include high jumps nearing six feet on a single foot; physically disabled athletes sprinting across a track of hundred metres in under ten seconds; a blind athlete running at full pace towards the point of a leap for a long jump, trying to gain every millimetre on the footboard without fouling out; quadriplegics and paraplegics using every ounce of energy derived from their body while seated in a wheelchair; athletes using their minimally functional hands to grip an object but unable to grip a congratulatory handshake, unable to see the shine and lustre of a gold medal, but sensing its weight around their neck and the thunderous applause in the background.
It isn’t the story about Indians versus the world or about winning their respective competitions. It is the story of athletes, who rise above their limiting disabilities. They do not view themselves as disabled or differently-abled or whatever you may call them. Their eyes do not focus on what’s missing. Their minds utilise what’s there. They live life the only way they know how to. They love to indulge in the same pleasures as the rest of the world. They are extremely proud of the fact that they are representing their nation, and hope for opportunities and support in their efforts. It is they who truly live the thought: ‘Impossible is Nothing’.
Let us stand up and salute their achievements and rally our support and best wishes towards these athletes, especially the Indian contingent, for the upcoming Rio Olympics 2016. Let us send an encouraging and affectionate message to these athletes that they are never alone in their quest for victory, in sporting terms or otherwise. The nation and the world supports their endeavour and would always cherish their triumphs. Let us challenge ourselves to ‘Being Human’.