When I saw Mariyappan Thangavelu's 1.89 m jump that saw him winning the high jump gold at the Rio Paralympics, my thoughts went back 13 years when I met Natalie du Toit at the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad.
Natalie is a disabled South African swimmer, who lost her left leg in an accident in 2001. She was 19 when she came to Hyderabad and was riding high on confidence, having won the 800 m gold medal at the All-African Games in Nigeria earlier that year. During practise sessions, all eyes were on Natalie with spectators wondering how she would swim with just one leg. But for Natalie, the swimming pool was her battleground.
"She does not regard herself as a handicapped person. She is going to challenge people in her race and she is not going to be the last one, I can tell you," said Karoly von Toros, coach of the South African team to me.
He was right. Natalie created a splash in the Hyderabad pool, winning the silver. And displaying sheer grit in competing with able-bodied swimmers, as she did in successive Olympic Games after that, Natalie showed she was platinum class.
India's Mariyappan Thangavelu in fact, would do something similar. In school, he would play volleyball along with other classmates. When he was 14, in his first competitive event against able-bodied athletes, Mariyappan finished second. He told The Hindu that he did not see himself as any different.
But the world, of course, did. And it took a Satyanarayana to spot Mariyappan's talent to go places, quite literally. The coach took him to Bengaluru for training.
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa has announced a cash reward of Rs 2 crore for Mariyappan and one hopes corporates chip in as well, with the same enthusiasm with which they felicitated PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. Mariyappan's family lives in one-room tenement in Periavadagampatti in Salem district, for which they pay Rs 500 as monthly rent. The loan of Rs 3 lakh that his vegetable vendor mother took for Mariyappan's treatment is still being repaid.
But while the country celebrates Mariyappan's gold and Varun Bhati's bronze, this should hopefully end the "we are doing you a favour" attitude that the able-bodied organisers have towards sporting events for the differently abled. The Times of India reported in 2015 on the 15th National Para-Athletic championship in Delhi, where players were "crammed into partially constructed buildings" with no ramps for easy access and poor bathroom facilities.
Most state governments don't realise that Paralympians need a helping hand. The Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India for instance, wants to organise the National championship in Pune in December but find the charges for the stadium and electricity charges (Rs 7.5 lakh) beyond its means. The Federation is now requesting the Maharashtra government to treat this as a special case to reduce or waive the charges.
Sports equipment is another challenge. The Thailand wheelchair basketball team was invited to play exhibition matches against the Indian team in Hyderabad in June. "Our wheelchairs, even though imported, cost Rs 35000 per chair. The Thai team had got each wheelchair customised at a cost of Rs 5 lakh and that reflected in their superior performance," says Madhavi Latha, President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India.
The differently-abled athletes also do not want their training centres to be located at venues different from the others. They point out that 85 per cent of the rules are the same in all sport and say rubbing shoulders with the other athletes will make the approach towards sport more inclusive. All it needs is for the stadia to be made disabled-friendly with ramps for easy access. One such venue is the Kotla Vijaybhaskar Reddy stadium in Hyderabad, which can host games for both the Olympians and the Paralympians.
Coaches also need to be trained in Paralympic sport. The different disciplines suffer as much from the lack of a system to spot the best talent as finding the right coaches to handle them with care and provide the best training.
The 19 para-athletes who have gone to Rio are taking part in individual events. India has never entered the Paralympics in a team event. "We want to do so with wheelchair basketball. We hope to play in the qualifying tournament in Bangkok in January 2017 and be in the top 3 teams to play in the under-23 world championship in Toronto in April next year,'' says Latha.
Mariyappan's flight in Rio has given India's Paralympians hope, much-needed wings. In many senses, their fight to make it to the podium and hear India's national anthem on the world's biggest sporting stage is far more tough than that of able-bodied athletes. India needs to honour its remarkably 'different' heroes.