Indian para-athletes lament wheelchair-unfriendly training centers

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In an exclusive chat with the softcopy, Paralympic silver medalist Nishad Kumar and Yogesh Khatuniya, and international badminton player Ammu Mohan share their views about para-sports in India.

Para-athletes in India are not happy about the lack of wheelchair accessibility at major sports training facilities.

Ammu Mohan, an international para-badminton player who bagged two gold and a silver medal at a recently held para-badminton international event at Uganda explained the problems she faced. “Any training center for para-athletes should be wheelchair accessible, including the restrooms. But India does not have many. Also, we need coaches who understand the problems that are faced by para-athletesas regular coaches would not understand them.”

Mohan, who won the Helen Keller award in December 2020, spoke about the problems she faced due to the trainers. “I am from Bangalore. But, I come all the way to Lucknow for training because I don’t have a proper trainer there who can understand my disability. I tried to request a few coaches to train me but they did not support me. They were afraid that my wheelchair would spoil their synthetic court.”

Para-badminton for wheelchair players is played on a wooden court, unlike other categories which are played on synthetic courts.

Nishad Kumar, High Jump silver medalist at the Tokyo Paralympics said, “Wherever we go for training, players on wheel chair face more difficulties. Training facilities are not so friendly for them. However, I don’t face many difficulties.” Kumar who lost his right arm at the age of 8 also won a gold medal at 2021 World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Dubai.

However, Kumar also said that the authorities have been extremely supportive in recent years. “The government, Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) have supported us extremely well. And our performance will be better in future tournaments.”

The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, in collaboration with SAI and PCI is in the process of developing three Centre for Disability Sports training facilities at Gandhinagar, Imphal and Gwalior for para-athletes.

The Center of Excellenceat Gandhinagar will be an extension of the existing SAI facility. The center coming up at Gwalior will be a completely new center with Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment being one of the pioneers whereas the center at Imphal will be under the National Sports University.

Satyanarayan, chairperson of the Athletics Technical Committee at PCI said, “International events in India will increase after these facilities are built. Currently, the facilities are only partially friendly for the para-athletes. However, we are working to provide the best facilities to our para-sports persons. You have seen the results at Tokyo [Paralympics] and it will only improve going forward.”

Satyanarayan also said that the pandemic slowed down the development work, but the facilities are expected to improve by end of July next year.

The centers are developed to promote safe sports such as athletics, table tennis, badminton, archery, judo, shooting, swimming and several other sports.

Yogesh Khatuniya who won silver medal in Discuss Throw at the Tokyo Paralympics also said that the facilities will boost para-sports. “Currently there are no training centers for para-athletes. Hence, these facilities coming up will be amazing for para-athletes. We will be able to train in India itself and will not be required to go overseas for training camps.”

Khatuniya also expressed that the centers should be developed considering the requirements of athletes on wheelchair. “A throwing frame is developed for wheelchair driven athletes for discuss throw, before which they can practice. If all these things are kept in mind, it will benefit them immensely.”

J. A. Benjamin, Executive Member of the PCI said that currently, preference is given to abled-athletes in all the divisions andpara-athletes are given second preference. The reason for limited facilities is the number of abled players that take up sports as a careeroption against the number of differently-abled players. However, he also saidthat the conditions are far better than before. “Earlier, the para-athletes, especially with intellectual disabilities would practice in parks and other places. So it has significantly improved compared to the 90s.

“In the absence of efficient resources, the three facilities coming up will definitely be significant to the development of para-athletes and will lift them. The facilities will improve their skills resulting in more gold and silver medals at Paralympics as compared to Olympics.”