Prometheus stole the fire from the Gods, and, in giving us the fire, empowered us. This Titan’s torch today is present in myriads of works of art and poetry, and it is also the emblem of the Olympic Games. As a child, one may recall having sat before a television to see the torchbearer run, with the torch held up by a sinewy arm, like the Statue of Liberty. In 2012, 580 such torchbearers carried lit torches from different corners of the UK; these included people on wheelchairs, people with vision impairment, and those with other forms of physical handicap. This was the Summer Paralympics in London, where Indian athletes won 10 medals. 

Raman Singh is a 29-year-old para-athlete based in Delhi, who couldn’t make it to London in 2012 because of lack of funds. But the good news is that he has qualified for the IPC ParaAthletics World Championships to be held in London in July 2017. He is now preparing for the upcoming tournament, training as a runner on 100m and 200m tracks, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in the national capital. “I started running in school, at the age of 12, back in 2001,” Raman tells Guardian 20. He is a T11 category visually impaired para-athlete. “There are three divisions in the visually impaired segment: T11 is for the completely blind, T12 for slight vision, and T13 for those with a vision level above T12,” he explains.

Raman Singh, a record holder for 100m sprints in India, has represented the country as a short distance sprinter in the T11 category in three successive Para World Asian Games held in 2006, 2010 and 2014. He competed against para-athletes from 23 other countries, and won a gold medal in long jump at the Sharjah International Open Athletics, hosted between 25-27 March 2017 in Dubai.

Raman Singh at a recent training session held at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

Similar is the case with Ankur Dhama, who represented India at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Twenty-two years of age and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in History at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, Ankur is a middle- and long-distance runner. He runs 800m, 1500m and 5000m. “I always wanted to run,” says Ankur, “so I came to the decision of moving to Delhi and enrolling in the Blind Relief Association in Delhi, which operates both a school as well as a college here.”

Dr. Singh, who is 39 years old, is a professor of physical education at the University of Delhi, and has acquired his PhD in physical education from Nagpur University. The training sessions he conducts are not done in any hope for monetary gains, but simply out of passion. “I don’t hope for any support from anyone. I train athletes and para-athletes because I enjoy doing so,” says Dr. Singh. 

Both Ankur and Raman have won at numerous state and national sports meets. This outcome, though, relies upon several determining factors, the first of which is relentless training. “I wake up at 5.30 a.m. and my training starts at 6.30 a.m. I train every morning, six days a week, for two hours, at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. Same goes for my evening routine,” says Raman.

And for his part, Ankur adds, “But every now and then we miss a training session.” Both laugh at that additional note. Their trainings are also systematically organised: while on a Monday they may be running laps to improve stamina, on a Thursday they will do speed runs in order to build endurance. “In the evenings we usually go to the gym to do weights and other specific workouts,” Raman says.

“All para-athletes in Delhi train at the stadium under Dr. Satyapal Singh. He is a great help, he doesn’t charge for training sessions,” Ankur tells us. “He even helps those who can’t afford other means. He supported me when I was still training and not winning awards.”

The relief of free trainings provided by Dr. Satyapal Singh is vitiated by the other necessary expenses to be borne — from trifles like travel costs, to significant needs like proper dietary supplements, shoes, kits. “The expenses can go up to Rs 15,000 a month.” Raman informs me. They are not fulltime professional athletes, since in order to support themselves they must earn through other means. While Ankur manages with the money received in rewards (he also has scholarships as support), Raman is compelled to work as an assistant manager at the Corporation Bank. “It is not easy to become a professional para-athlete in India since there is barely any support from the government,” Ankur says. Raman adds further light to the issue, “We have the Sports Association of India, which acts as a ratifying body, under the Ministry of Sports, and they do support, but it isn’t enough.”

Both Ankur and Raman have won at numerous state and national sports meets. This outcome, though, relies upon several determining factors, the first of which is relentless training. “I wake up at 5.30 a.m. and my training starts at 6.30 a.m. I train every morning, six days a week, for two hours, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The same goes for my evening routine,” says Raman. 
Ramkaran Singh is also a middle- and long-distance runner, but from the T13 category. He even plays other sports like cricket and football in the T13 division, and is able to support himself as a professional athlete through his business ventures.

He has won silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Para World Asian Games. He has been an athlete for nearly 16 long years and trains at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium as well, under Dr. Satyapal Singh.

Dr. Singh, who is 39 years old, is a professor of physical education at the University of Delhi, and has acquired his PhD in physical education from Nagpur University. The training sessions he conducts are not done in any hope for monetary gains, but simply out of passion. “I don’t hope for any support from anyone, I train athletes and para-athletes because I enjoy doing so,” emphasises Dr. Singh. He started coaching athletes in 2007 and has not taken a break ever since.  

 Ramkaran Singh at a recent training session held at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

“It’s not easy to find a trainer that a runner can fit with,” Ramkaran says. “I struggled for three years when I started out until I found Dr. Satyapal Singh. I am a long-distance runner, my training on a daily basis involves covering a distance of about 20-25km. My shoes need to be changed every two months, even most of my kit. To this is added also the support we need in order to have guides who are with us during the race.” These are among those needs that cannot be done away with. There are others as well which, though secondary, also affect the quality of training for many para-athletes across India.

“There are awards, corporate funds and even sponsors, but the help we seek from the government receives almost no response. There is no monthly allowance given as support.” Ramakaran also speaks of what he has learnt at international meets about other para-athletes, in nearly 23 different countries. “In most countries para-athletes are fulltime professionals who receive a monthly salary, family support, salary for guides, and even transport.” It is such secondary aid that has created a marked difference in the quality of training received by Indian para-athletes as compared to those from other countries.

Among such circumstantial obstacles there is also the difference in treatment. “Athletes receive 365 days of training camps before international events, which includes monetary support, accommodation and dietary aid,” says Raman Singh, “but in the case of para-athletes, we receive only 40- or 60-day camps with the other support, which is not enough.”

“If we have better help, our own training can bring about better results. We wish to be great para-athletes who win, in order to show others that they can also do this, they can be encouraged to take the athletics field as a serious profession.” Ankur tells me.

The General Secretary of the Blind Relief Association of India, A. David, has a thorough understanding of the plight of those para-athletes who are struggling to make their way through. “Most of the problem, especially with the case of para-athletes, is the lack of awareness,” says A. David. He elucidates the solution with the aid of an example of the Indian Premier League. He says that the sort of impact the whole tournament can have relies greatly upon the investments made by different bodies and how it is made visible to the population of the country through various means like advertisements and programmes. His points are sharply placed on the heart of matter, but to this he also has much more to add.

He has made observations and has planned certain approaches as solutions. “Simple things like utilising available facilities used by athletes, by making modifications to help para-athletes can make a great difference,” David suggests, in addition to things like ramps to enable wheelchair athletes to use a larger number of facilities for training. He hopes for the government to look beyond the need for funds, and wishes for their involvement on the ground.

Ankur Dhama at a training session.

There is a step-by-step agenda also in place in David’s plans. He suggests, “First, in places where coaches receive education to become trainers, they should be mandatorily taught the training modules for para-athletes; there are institutions in Gwalior and Patiala where such curriculum can be introduced. Secondly, education must be made holistic at the school level for the blind or those with other impairments. They should be made to indulge in sports as much as they do with their syllabus. Such an approach can help increase awareness. And lastly, we could use more training centers and events or championships to encourage prospective athletes.” His last point resonates with Ankur Dhama’s hope for drawing more people towards the field of para-athletics.

A. David strives to “bring up people with impairments to realise that there is so much they can do.” The whole arrangement at this moment, with trainers like Dr. Satyapal Singh and para-athletes like Ramkaran Singh, is upholstered by “passion”, as Ramkaran himself puts it. While for Ankur Dhama, being a para-athlete “is a matter of pride, an opportunity to represent India,” and for Raman Singh it is “all about reaching the finish point – I just wish to win, win, win.”

Dr. Satyapal Singh says, “It really makes no difference whether it is an able or handicapped athlete; I just wish to see more athletes from our country. And, I wish to train them to the best of my capabilities.” Though objectives vary for these para-athletes, their means and conditions are perhaps more alike than they’d like to believe. If it weren’t for institutional support, like The Blind Relief Association, or trainers, like Dr. Singh, matters would probably have been much worse than they are.

 

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