Specially abled sportspersons are increasingly finding an inclusive tone in the last few decades, but there is still a long way to go. While people are going heads over heels with the Olympians and regular sportspersons, Paralympians too are bringing medals after shining at the world’s biggest sports area. However, the Paralympic doesn’t get the desired spotlight. But these specially-abled sportspersons are winners too.
Most participants in the Kaun Banega Crorepati show will jump in their seats if they get a question like “Who is the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in javelin?” It’s known to all that Neeraj Chopra had entered the history books by becoming the first Indian track and field athlete to win a gold medal in the just-concluded Tokyo Games.
But the correct answer to the question might surprise a lot of people. It is not Chopra but Devendra Jhajharia. Well, the answer will be followed by more questions like Devendra who?
There lies the irony of the Indian sporting landscape. Very few know and fewer remember our most successful Paralympic athlete. However, the problem lies not in public memory but in the way our society looks at and segregates issues.
Jhajharia, born to a family of farmers in the Churu district of Rajasthan, is the only Indian to have ever won two gold medals at any Olympic or Paralympic games – one at the 2004 Athens Paralympics and another at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Jhajharia was 23 when he was first crowned Paralympic champion at Athens 2004 after a world record-breaking 62.15-metre throw in F44/F46, which eclipsed the previous mark of 59.77 metres.
As the F46 category was not in the competition schedule in Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games, he missed the chance to win more laurels for the country. But he kept doing his training and after 12 years when the F46 category was reinstated at Rio 2016, Jhajharia won his second gold medal and also improved on his world record by throwing the javelin at a distance of 63.97 metres.
But this phenomenon is not limited to just para-sports. The disparity is palpable among men’s and women’s sports too. In tennis, it took legendary women’s champion, Billie Jean King, to threaten to boycott the US Open in 1973 that men and women finally received equal pay for the Grand Slam wins. The oldest tennis tournament in sport’s history, Wimbledon too didn’t pay men and women equally till 2007.
No wonder the top 100 earners in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is found to be roughly 80 cents to every dollar of what is earned by 100 men in the Association of Tennis Professions (ATP).
Voices are rising against this discrimination across sporting disciplines throughout the world. It was not very early that 28 members of US women’s national team footballers filed a lawsuit against US Soccer Federation (USSF) for wage discrimination.
Many argue that this discrimination is just a reflection of the unequal society that we live in. Many argue that this pay disparity will not change until female or para sports are marketed properly.
Perhaps the time has come for a change and the Tokyo Olympics is a glaring example of that changing scenario. Not only we are having more and more women sportspersons making the Olympic grid, but it was sportswomen like PV Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu and Lovlina Borgohan who put India firmly on the medals table with the women’s hockey team missing out on a podium finish by a whisker.
Billie Jean Kings Leadership has taken up this disparity issue in all earnest. Kings perhaps summed it up correctly when she said “The BJKL is not about sports. It’s about every industry. To try to get equal pay for equal work and that means across the board, from CEO to entry-level.”
We have to wait to see if sports show the way forward.
(Archie Little has been a sports journalist for over a decade now. He has worked with leading media houses of India like The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, and The Times of India. He has done talk shows on All India Radio and has travelled to different parts of the world on work assignments.)
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