Sport is a performance art. The greatest performers, those sportspersons on the very top step of the ladder are fueled or driven by emotion or circumstances or both – pride, anger, rage, comeuppance, survival instinct, a troubled childhood to name a few. The duopoly of skill and a pivotal moment triggered by said emotion maketh a great competitor.
By this measure, it’s difficult to say when the Devendra Jhajharia that we know today was born. Poverty, discrimination, uncertainty, national pride – all of these factors played a vital role in shaping the greatest champion that this country has ever known. There’s no typo here, Jhajharia is the greatest Indian Olympian or Paralympian as the only man or woman to win two individual gold medals, 12 years apart none the less.
Murlikant Petkar in 1972. Jhajharia 2004. Abhinav Bindra 2008. Mariyappan Thangavelu in 2016. Jhajharia again in 2016. This is the honour roll of individuals to win the most-coveted shiny piece of metal so elusive to our country that only four stalwarts have etched their name on it. And Jhajharia did it twice.
“He’s the world record holder. (A pause and a couple of seconds later) Oooooh, he’s the world record breaker!! It stood for 12 years from his Athens gold and Jhajharia sends it out to new horizons..”
“Like waiting for the Kumbh Mela”
In conversation with Scroll.in, Jhajharia opened up about his journey, the excruciating wait for a second gold medal and the dark times in between.
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Jhajharia not only stepped up, but broke his old world record of 62.15 metres set in Athens by almost two metres, setting a new mark of 63.97 metres for the F46 javelin throw event. The F46 disability, as classified by the World Paralympics body, is “Upper limb/s affected by limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement.”
“After I won my first gold in 2004, I waited for my event in 2008. When it wasn’t a part of the Beijing Games, I had hoped that it would be included in London 2012. On hearing that it wasn’t a part of the Games, I thought of quitting the sport, but my family supported me and my wife, a former nationally-ranked player said she would quit her sport but asked me not to do so. These 12 years, it was like waiting for the Kumbh Mela,” exclaimed Jhajharia.
Jhajharia said he was relieved when in 2013, he found out that he was finally going to compete at the grandest stage of all three years later. He would win a gold and a silver at the next two World Championships in 2013 and 2015. “I have never compromised with my training but during this phase, I worked harder than I ever have at any other time. I went underground. Main kissi se baat nahi kiya (I went incommunicado). My son wasn’t even born at that time but I left my family and moved to SAI Gandhinagar and despite being injured at that time, my coach Sunil Tanwar told me that you must not aim for the gold but the world record,” said Jhajharia recalling his two-year training stint for the Rio Games.
He speaks about the immense pressure leading up to the event. “When I got out of SAI to go to the Paralympics, I remembered these moments. I happened to meet my first coach RD Singh there and the night before I was to leave, we had a philosophical discussion on what we had achieved till that point. He told me that I had made RD Singh proud. There was excruciating pressure from the media and whoever met me told me that ‘aapki toh medal confirmed hai’ (you have a confirmed medal)”, adding that all he wanted was that the national anthem would be played in his name again.
Before heading to Rio, Jhajharia had made his mind up to retire after the Games. In September, he decided that Tokyo 2020 would be his swansong. “The 35-year old Jhajharia did better than the 23-year old Jhajharia. The coach and I discussed and thought that if the 35-year old could do it, why not the 39-year old?”
“Couldn’t you get a two-handed athlete?”
The youngest of three brothers and four sisters born to a farmer in Churu, Rajasthan, Jhajharia lost his hand at eight when he got an electric shock while climbing a tree in his village and accidentally touched a live 11,000-volt cable.
India might have lost a great champion but for the progressive thinking of Jhajharia’s mother. “Bahut saari maa hoti jo bolti ki engineer ban jaa ya doctor ban ja, par bees saal pehle bahut kam maa thi jo balti ki beta, tu khiladi ban jaa (A lot of mothers would have asked me to become an engineer or a doctor but my mother asked me to take up sport). I had locked myself in the house and told her that the other kids would taunt me and that I wouldn’t play with them. She is the one who forcibly sent me to the ground.”
In 2000, RD Singh started training Jhajharia as a teenager and they travelled to Gwalior for an open-university meet where Singh took his young charge along to spectate at a few events.
Jhajharia said that at that time, some coaches from Punjab came up and spoke to Singh at which time the latter introduced Jhajharia as a young javelin thrower to which the coaches asked RD, “Aapko poore Rajasthan mein do haath waala nahi mila? (Couldn’t you get a two-handed athlete in the entire state of Rajasthan?) My coach came and told me to calm down, that they didn’t know any better. I didn’t say anything that day but I defeated the able-bodied boys from Punjab after which they came and apologised.“
I first met Jhajharia at the GoSports Annual Awards gala where he was crowned Athlete of the Year above all other athletes and para-athletes sponsored by the foundation, including Deepa Malik, Dipa Karmakar, Srikanth Kidambi and fellow 17-year old javelin thrower Rinku Hooda.
At the time, the senior man had joked that when he started competing, Rinku hadn’t been born. Later, Jhajharia would tell me, “I still remember that day and realise that para-athletes are still not given their due. That is why during our event, I told Rinku to give his best performance and he did that, notching up his personal best in Rio.”
Future of the para-sport movement
Both Jhajharia and Rinku are part of the foundation’s para-sports programme, the former being a part of it since 2015, “It’s not just about the financial support. I can share my personal problems with them. I’m happy that para-sports got a sponsor for the first time and at a juncture when we needed training. We were also included in the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme. Things are looking up.”
More improvement has to happen if para-sports is to reach its potential in India, Jhajharia insists. The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) had been banned for not adhering to the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC). “The IPC were right in suspending us because we didn’t follow the rules. It shouldn’t happen again. It was a big event but if you don’t win the gold medal with the national flag above your head, it doesn’t feel like a gold won for your country.”
The Padmi Shri and Arjuna awardee stresses on the importance of more international training and exposure for para-athletes. Support from private organisations can be sought here, he says and tells me that he had to wait for some time after he won gold at the National Paralympics before he could participate in the 2002 Asian Games, “We can’t start training in 2019 for 2020. Why don’t we start in 2016 or 2017 instead? State governments should ensure that there are more facilities at major training centres for the disabled. Currently, there are close to none.”
We end the conversation on a very melancholic note. “It feels good being the first person to win two individual golds and to be a flagbearer for your country. But it took too long for someone to become a double gold medallist, 70 years after independence is just too long.”
This is the last of a five-part series listing the top five Indian sportspersons of the year. Indian junior hockey captain Harjeet Singh was #5, Olympic silver medal-winning shuttler PV Sindhu was #4, gymnast Dipa Karmakar was #3 and golfer Aditi Ashok was #2.