The 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio was momentous for India in more ways than one. The country sent its largest ever contingent for the Games and returned with its best medal haul in history.
At the previous Paralympic Games in London, India had won just one medal but there were hopes of bettering that from the 19-member contingent in Rio. And the athletes delivered in Brazil.
India has participated in every edition of the Summer Paralympics since 1968, except for the 1976 and 1980 editions. Heading into the Rio Games, India had won a total of eight medals in all previous editions combined. But the athletes stepped up and added four more medals to the country’s tally in Rio.
There were 19 Indian athletes – 16 men and three women – participating across five sports at the Rio Paralympics. Devendra Jhajharia and Mariyappan Thangavelu returned with gold medals, Deepa Malik won silver, and Varun Singh Bhati bagged bronze.
India's medals at Paralympics (by year)
India's medals at Paralympics (by sport)
Here’s a closer look at India’s medal winners at the 2016 Rio Paralympics:
Jhajaria was India’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony and went on to break his own world record in the men’s javelin throw event. Twelve years before that, in Athens, he had won India its second gold medal at the Paralympics with a then world record throw of 62.15 meters. His event was not included in the Beijing and London Games but back in Rio, Jhajharia went a step further to deliver a stunning throw of 63.97 meters.
Jhajharia became the first para-athlete to be honoured with the Khel Ratna Award after his heroics in Rio. “It gives me great happiness,” he had said. “But it would have been even greater had I won it in 2005 after winning the gold and breaking the world record at the Athens Paralympics. So, it’s a bit late but I am happy nonetheless.”
He would like very much to repeat his heroics when he leads a strong Indian athletics contingent at Tokyo 2020.
Mariyappan Thangavelu and Varun Singh Bhati
On day two of the Rio Paralympics, Mariyappan won India its first medal of the games with a phenomenal performance in the men’s T42 high jump event. He, along with the then reigning world champion Sam Grewe and compatriot Varun Singh Bhati, had cleared the 1.86m mark and were fighting for the gold medal. This was the only competition going on in the stadium at the time and all eyes were on these three athletes.
But it was Mariyappan who clinched the top spot with a brilliant jump of 1.89 meters. He became just the third Indian athlete to win a gold medal at the Paralympics, after swimmer Murlikant Petkar in 1972 and javelin thrower Jhajharia in 2004.
Bhati and Grewe couldn’t better the 1.86m mark and the Indian won the bronze medal since he had taken more attempts. It was a unique night for Indian sport, to see two medallists on the podium together at a quadrennial mega event.
Malik created history at the Rio Paralympics by becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal in the history of the Games. With a personal best throw of 4.61 meters, Malik won the silver medal in the women’s shot put F53 event.
The then 45-year-old was the oldest member of the Indian contingent at the Rio Games. After winning silver in the shot put and discus throw events at the 2011 World Championships, she had received the Arjuna award in 2012.
“My medal is not just a medal anymore. The Rio Paralympics have created an atmosphere of inclusiveness,” Malik told Scroll.in. “It is a symbol of change and awareness. My winning the medal presented a perspective of women empowerment. It was an example of mind over body and it conveyed the message to the whole society.”