The Rio Games are over, both the Olympics and Paralympics versions. But a controversy has begun in India over the differential treatment handed out to para-athletes, as compared to their able-bodied counterparts. The country went gaga over a silver and a bronze won by its women participants at the Rio Olympics. Having saved their country the blushes of a medal drought, shuttler PV Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi Malik are rightfully basking in the acclaim. Generous cash rewards, plots of land, luxury cars and lucrative endorsement deals have come their way. Sindhu is in a happy position with over 16 top ranking companies said to be vying to get her endorse their products. So much so, that the sports marketing firm maging her brand profiling and licensing — has been hard at work whittling down the number of competitors while extracting the best possible deals. The upshot is that silver winner Sindhu has struck gold by bagging a total Rs 50 crore endorsement deal for three years from nine companies. This is supposedly the best deal a non-cricketing sportsperson has been able to mage in this country. To her credit, the Hyderabad-based shuttler has reportedly made it clear that she will not endorse brands with ‘negative’ influence like cola brands; she will also allot limited time for commercials so as not to affect her training. As for Sakshi Malik, she has been appointed wrestling director of a university in her home-town Rohtak and showered with cash rewards totaling more than Rs 5 crore. Earlier Olympic medalists like shooters Rajyavardhan Rathore or Abhiv Bindra were not very successful on the endorsement front, though shuttler Sai Nehwal and boxer Vijender Singh did much better. While Sindhu, Malik, gymst Dipa Karmakar and shooter Jitu Rai received Khel Rat awards recently, Dipa’s coach BS ndi and Sindhu’s coach Pullela Gopichand too were honored with Drocharya awards.
The country needs to nurture its sportspersons and reward them handsomely, for they can make hay only in the all-too-brief period the sun shines on their careers. Apart from cricketers, most able-bodied sportspersons in India face an uphill battle to survive in their sunset years, with little opportunities coming their way to be involved in coaching or sports administration. And now a debate has begun whether our Paralympic athletes should be treated at par with our Olympians. After all, Rio witnessed the best ever medal haul by Indians in a Paralympics campaign, with two golds, a silver and a bronze. To be fair, the Sports Ministry has announced Rs 75 lakh cash reward for men’s high jump T-42 gold medalist Mariyappan Thangavelu, along with Rs 30 lakh for bronze winner Varun Singh Bhati in the same event. But the country is yet to properly appreciate the magnitude of Devender Jhajharia’s golden effort in men’s javelin throw in which he broke his own world record set in the 2004 Paralympics at Athens. Then there is Deepa Malik, silver medalist in the shot put event and the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic medal. Jhajharia lost an arm in a childhood accident, Thangavelu’s leg was crushed under a bus, Deepa is wheelchair-bound. Prime Minister rendra Modi made a warm gesture by hosting the four Paralympic medalists at his residence, while the Sports Ministry has recommended them for the Padma awards this year, apart from cash rewards on par with Olympic medalists. More importantly, Sports Minister Vijay Goel recently announced that Paralympics winners too can qualify for the Khel Rat awards — as of now, only Olympic medal winners automatically qualify for the Khel Rat. But overall, the craze among state governments to honour Paralympian winners was conspicuously missing. Will our corporates, so crazy to rope in Olympians as brand ambassadors, offer even a middling job to a promising para-athlete? The only reason their accomplishments this year got some publicity was due to social media. The fact remains that most people in our country fail to appreciate the significance of a Paralympic medal, as much as an Olympic one. It all boils down to the pervasive lack of a sporting culture, the incomprehension of how difficult sports is at the higher levels, more so for athletes battling disabilities. This, combined with the deep-rooted social bias against the differently-abled, is what makes it a thankless struggle for para-athletes. This is where we need to take a leaf out of the book of sporting powers like USA, Australia and now Britain, where para-athletes get the respect, support and recognition they so richly deserve.