Accessibility September 19, 2021
An idea of Paralympics
At the time of writing this piece, India has won 10 medals (2 Gold, 5 Silver & 3 Bronze) at Paralympics Game 2020. This medal tally is already more than our tally at Olympics Games placing India currently at 29th position. This year India has sent its biggest contingent to Paralympics standing at 54 strong.
India first participated in the Paralympics in 1968. It took just another 4 years for India to get its medal at the games that too the yellow one. Murlikant Petkar won the Gold medal 50m freestyle swimming. He was left paraplegic after he received multiple bullet injuries and was run by an army vehicle during the 1965 war. His story is the epitome of commitment to the service of the nation even after leaving the army after surviving the 1965 war.
Since then, Paralympics have produced multiple legends in India. The most prominent being Devendra Jhajharia who is a multiple time medal winner in Athletics. He lost his arm after receiving an electric shock of approx. 11,000 volts at the age of 8 or 9 yrs old. This didn’t dissuade him from pursuing a sport which was upper body dominated sports i.e., Javelin throw.
There was an idea
The first ever event for disabled people at the Olympics was organized in 1948 when Dr Ludwig Guttman organized what he called Stake Mandeville Games. 16 wheelchair athletes (14 men and 2 women) participated in an archery competition on the opening Day of the 1948 Olympics. The Stoke Mandeville Games later became the Paralympic Games which first took place in Rome, Italy, in 1960 featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries. Since then, they have taken place every four years.
Professor Dr Guttman was a German born Jewish Neurologist. He was one of the most prominent names in Germany in the 1st half of the 20th century. When the Nazi regime took over and started its systemic eradication of German Jews, he had to fled the country to find refuge in Britain. He was bestowed with the responsibility of running a hospital wherein at the end of 2nd World war he treated many soldiers and civilians and gave them their life back. It was at this hospital that he thought of not just medical healing but also social healing of these people who were rendered disabled fighting for their country. Hence, he started a rehabilitation sport which evolved into a recreational sport and later became a competitive sport.
For Prof Dr Guttman Paralympics wasn’t just a reduced form of Olympics being held simultaneously with the Olympics Games. It was an effort for social integration of People with Disabilities who have been excluded from all spheres of society be it employment, education or family. He saw sports as an instrument of achieving this goal. Olympics are considered as the place where we witness the limits of the human body. Players present the display of human abilities, grit, commitment and hard work while touching the extremes of what’s “humanly” possible.
However, in their assessment of the Olympics society had a unitary approach while assessing brilliance. They weren’t cognizant of the proposition that there are more ways of achieving this brilliance and multiple ways of defying the “humanly” limit set by the abled-bodied world. Dr Guttman and the Paralympics organizer envisioned to challenge this ableist perception of sports and their methods of playing. The “Para” in Paralympics is derived from a Greek preposition “para” meaning beside or alongside. Thus, the Paralympics mean “Parallel” Olympics meaning that Paralympics are the parallel games to the Olympics and illustrate how the two movements exist side-by-side. Thus, for every Usain Bolt there was Chantal Petitclerc, for every Mark Spitz there was Tricsha Zorn and the list is long.
The world was obsessed with the medical model of the “disability” meaning that people’s abilities were identified by determining their disability and its degree. So, if a person has lost their “essential” body parts, they can’t play certain sports. And yet we witnessed Esther Vergeer, wheelchair bound player since age 8, earning the title of “Queen of the Court” in tennis amassing 7 Paralympics medals and a streak of 470 unbeaten matches. She is considered to be the most dominant player in any sport. Similarly, we saw Tricsha Zorn, a blind swimmer, dominate the sport wherein navigation is key. She won 55 medals including 41 Gold at the Paralympics earning her the title of “Greatest” to ever participate in the Games.
Paralympics played a significant role in the disability movement which brought a gradual shift from this medical model of disability to the social model of disability. The social model of disability puts an onus on society to provide an accommodating environment for disabled people since the world is not just meant for abled bodied people. When society fails to provide such accommodation, they render individuals disabled. Paralympics recognizes this underline difference between able bodied and disabled people and shows that when sports become accommodating (vide change in certain rules), disabled people can also achieve the same brilliance and human limits as their able-bodied counterparts.
Winds of change
This year Paralympics appear to have garnered a wider media attention than it is duly attributed. Similar to the Olympic Games, the Indian Prime Minister, ministers, organizations etc have been regularly posting messages encouraging and congratulating our athletes for raising our flag at the highest sporting event. Many state governments have announced cash prizes for the athletes who have won medals at the event. What is heartening to see is that the cash prize is equivalent to what is offered to the winners of the Olympics game. This sends a message that if not better our Paralympics athletes are as good as our Olympic athletes which is in line with the vision of Paralympics.
The beautiful co-incidence could not be emphasized enough that two of the highlights so far in Paralympics and Olympics Games for India i.e., Sumit Antil and Neeraj Chopra, play the same sport (Javelin throw). This accidental similarity sends out a louder message of substantive equality- If given the equal opportunity on the same platform disabled people will also deliver equal results and claim their deserved position and rights.
Both players achieved brilliance in their own right and cannot (and shouldn’t) be compared. This lends support to the belief of Paralympics that there is more than one way of achieving brilliance by playing the same sport. Both Sumit and Neeraj achieved this in their own parallel way.
However, not everything is sweet for the disability movement. Sporting companies, digital and media telecasters still don’t find Paralympics important enough to telecast for Indian audiences. On one hand where they pour in millions to have telecasting rights even for an Indian test series on the other not one big name having wider audience reach in the business bothered to bid hard for telecast of Paralympics Games in India. This deprived millions of Indians the opportunity to watch the biggest international parallel sporting event.
Additionally, there is usually a long gap between Olympics and Paralympics by which time the majority of world media disappears, crowds return home and the hosting city returns to normalcy. The Paralympics also doesn’t hold the same importance as the Olympics. This was very recently evident during the Rio Olympics (2016) when organisers said that they don’t have the financial capacity to organize Paralympics games and provide athletes adequate facilities. However, it was the determination of the International Paralympics Committee which finally managed to coerce organizers to host Paralympics with similar standards as Olympic Games. Their struggle was immensely acknowledged by the crowd who turned up to watch these events.
Before the London Olympics (2012) Lord Coe, Chairman of Paralympics organizing committee said that “The UK would never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way. The Paralympians have lifted the cloud of limitation,” 9 years later maybe this clout of limitation is in the process of being lifted in India.
Interestingly, the last time the Paralympics were held in Tokyo (1964) only 374 athletes from 21 countries participated. In 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympics 4,537 athletes from 183 countries are participating.
Image Credit: TheHindu
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