Champion swimmer Bharat Kumar, who brought glory to India by winning gold medals at international athletic events, probably never thought he’d end up washing cars to make a living.
An international level paralympic swimmer, Bharat was born without an arm. But this did not deter him from pursuing his passion for swimming. He won gold medals at the 2005 Junior National Level Athletics and the 2009 World Games and silver at the Junior World Athletics in Ireland. He has also participated in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games held in China.
But for all this he is reduced to penury now. Bharat’s life has been one of struggle from the start. Born in Haryana, Bharat was one of six siblings. His father was a labourer who worked as a soil digger. Due to financial problems, Bharat’s father sent him to Ghaziabad to stay with his paternal aunt, and he spent part of his childhood there.
In Ghaziabad, one of 8-year-old Bharat’s chores was to bathe the four buffaloes his aunt owned in a river. This is how he got interested in swimming. He’d hold the buffalo’s tail for balance and taught himself how to swim in the river.
After some time in Ghaziabad, he returned to his native village where he went on to win medals at zonal and inter-zonal levels in school.
Bharat was an athlete before he became a swimmer. He was participating in the 2010 Commonwealth Games when he suffered a foot injury and had no choice but to pull out of athletics. However, undaunted by this he decided to become a swimmer.
Hard work and determination made him a national level swimmer by 2011. He has won around 50 medals for India since, but now has to wash cars to scrape by.
The government’s apathy towards anything other than cricket is appalling. It lavishes crores of money on the ‘gentleman’s game’ but has scant respect or attention for other athletes who play for the country. Bharat used to practice in the Nehru stadium but could not afford the diet an athlete needs. He was forced to sit down with beggars near a temple to get enough food to eat.
He says, "I didn't have enough money for a good diet. So I had to sit with beggars near the Sai temple to have my food. That was my diet."
Bharat tells Iamin DNA, "I started athletics with a lot of struggle and did reach a good [position]. I am from a very poor family. Despite earning so many medals for our country, I still have to wash cars to earn a living."
Bharat has approached many eminent people with pleas for help, but so far no one has responded. His only hope is the government now.
"I don't have an arm and I don't need one. All I need is some support. I promise to bring medals in the 2017 Asian Games provided I get the desired support. I have approached many celebrities for support but all in vain. This time, I have written to Modiji for help," he says.
Bharat isn't the only Indian athlete who has been forced to live in penury, and with little recognition.
India Today reported in 2013 that Sita Sahu, a two-time bronze medal winner in running in the Athens Special Olympics in 2011 was selling golgappas and chaat for a living. Shanti Devi, a 40-year-old former player of the Bihar kabaddi team sells vegetables to feed her children. She says she doesn't want her children to take up the game which gave her nothing but frustration. The Indian women’s kabaddi team returned home after winning the world cup but had to take autorickshaws home from the airport. There was no celebratory welcome for them, no fanfare and no recognition.
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