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COVID-19 Pandemic Kills the Dreams of Para-Athletes in India

COVID-19 Pandemic Kills the Dreams of Para-Athletes in India

India’s National Champion Saheb Hussain Shares How

“Representing the country in the Paralympics is every athlete’s dream,” said Saheb Hussain, a para-athlete and the national record-holder in the 100 metres T12 (category for the partially blind) sprint. But unless you’re a member of the Indian men’s cricket team, it seems it’s not enough to have a dream. At least not during the pandemic.

In the 2011 West Bengal State Games, Hussain, who was 19 then, could’ve won a gold medal in the 800m middle distance event in the general category, but despite reaching the finishing line first, he got disqualified. “I came first, but I was disqualified because you are supposed to change tracks in the 800m event and I could not see the flag,” he explained.

Disqualification is an athlete’s nightmare. But for Hussain, who was born with 75-percent visual impairment, it was a blessing in disguise. “When I informed the authorities about my visual impairment, they told me about para-sports, a concept I was not aware of,” he recalled.

Adapted sports, or para-sports, are competitive or recreational sports for the disabled. These events have been around for over a century but became popular only after World War II when sports were used as a way to rehabilitate war veterans and injured civilians. The first Paralympic games were organised in 1960 in Rome. Ever since, these games have been organised once every four years right after the Olympic games.

A year later, in 2012, Hussain participated in the National Para-Athletic Championships for the first time and clinched the gold medal in 200m sprint and a silver medal each in the 400m and 800m middle distance events. He held on to the national record for five consecutive years until 2018.

The games did not take place in 2019 because of some internal disputes within the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) and in 2020, well, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. The 2020 championships were to be the qualification event for Tokyo Paralympics. And that has hurt Hussain, who lives with his sister in the North 24 Parganas district in the eastern state of West Bengal, and many other para-athletes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered all our dreams. I’ve been unable to sleep for almost a month,” Hussain said. “It takes years of practice to perfect the game and suddenly you are forced to stay at home without any training or a proper diet.”

The Civilian Welfare Foundation (CWF) is an NGO that works in the areas of disability, gender and education. The group’s founder, Shuvojit Moulik, agreed that the pandemic is a big blow to the athletes.

“Most of these athletes come from a poor socio-economic background and have no family money to fall back on,” he explained. “We did a study in 2012 and found that the average income of a four-member family of a para-athlete is 8,000 rupees a month. The only way they can continue playing is either with government assistance or private funds, which are limited to just a few athletes. And during this pandemic, neither the governments nor the NGOs are supporting athletes. The sports persons are dependent on individual donations or charity to sustain.”

Moulik also said that for a long time, Indian Paralympics was based on the charity model, which means only athletes with resources or the ability to secure sponsorships would make it. But after the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Persons with Disabilities Act came into existence, athletes from weaker sections of the society found some encouragement. 

But due to the pandemic, things have gone back to square one.

Hussain also told StoriesAsia that the only time he got any help from the West Bengal government was in 2011. “I was awarded 20,000 rupees for the first and the last time. These days, I only get a medal and a certificate. My father sends me some money. Nobody has bothered to even call and check up on us, forget offering help,” he said.

Go Sports Foundation, funded by former cricketer Rahul Dravid among others, has been helping athletes and sportspersons like Hussain. But even that has come to a halt.

“I have applied for renewal. I hope I get it,” Hussain said.

Hussain is just one of the many athletes who are seeing their dreams die a slow death. The central or state governments are not helping. No one is even taking cognisance of the problems these athletes are facing.

The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) is the body responsible for selecting athletes for the games every four years. In the past, many questions have been raised on the way it functions. Like its counterparts, the PCI is also facing many allegations of corruption and mismanagement. 

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Several athletes have repeatedly accused the body of favouritism in the process of selection. Since its establishment, the committee has been suspended three times by the International Paralympic Committee. 

In 2015, the body was suspended indefinitely by the International Paralympic Committee because the athletes were kept in the most dire conditions during the National Paralympic Championships held in Ghaziabad near New Delhi.

When asked about Hussain, Dr. Rakesh Gupta, the PCI Chairman for Athletics, said, “We do whatever we can within our framework. But, if there are problems at the local or state level, the state Paralympic committees must investigate them. Moreover, you are talking about just one person; there are thousands of para-athletes who have the same problems. Even if we help one person, what about the others?”

In a recent statement, PCI Secretary General Gursharan Singh said that he felt India would win 15 medals with a minimum of five gold medals in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. In the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, the Indian team had managed to grab a total of four medals, including two golds.

Can India aspire to win 15 medals if nothing is done to help athletes like Hussain? 

However, it’s not just about the country’s pride, but also para-athletes’ means to survive. “If I win a medal for the country, my life would be secured. I might even get a job,” Hussain said.

Top Photograph:

COVID-19 has forced Saheb Hussain to stay at home. His practice and training have stopped. / Credit: Citizen Welfare Foundation

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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