Editor’s note: This was originally published in October, 2017 when Murlikant Petkar was yet to be recognised by the Government of India. On March 20, 2018, he finally received a Padma Shri award that was long overdue.
Over a year has passed since Devendra Jhajharia made history at the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016. He was lauded for his gold medal and, better yet, breaking his own world record in the javelin throw. It only seemed apt that he received the Khel Ratna earlier this year.
But this epilogue befits a certain former athlete who has gone through pretty much the exact same process minus the recognition – India’s first Paralympic gold medalist, Murlikant Petkar. Not just that, he is the first Indian to win an individual gold medal in either Paralympics or Olympics.
Yes. Before Jhajharia and Abhinav Bindra, this man achieved a historic first for India at the 1972 Paralympics in Heidelberg, Germany. His world record of 37.33 seconds in the 50-metre freestyle still stands (although that specific category doesn’t exist anymore).
Petkar is a humble man with fascinating stories to tell. Residing in Thergaon, Pune, in a quaint location with his son Arjun, his spouse and kids, Petkar lives a life of complete simplicity. His enthusiasm for revisiting the past is matched by his friendliness to The Field’s crew who sat down with him for a trip down memory lane.
All it takes is a simple question and he will break into countless stories about his past. It’s fascinating to listen to him speak about his achievements as though they were a given, because he felt he was always destined for greatness.
Even before becoming a para-athlete, Petkar was multi-talented with a knack for contact sport. A young wrestling enthusiast at 12, he defeated the son of the village head in a bout involving money. Unfortunately the win meant that he had to flee from the akhada as the angry villagers ran to “kill him for insulting the village head”.
He fled to the highway, got on a bus, reached Pune and that’s where his story begins. It was almost impossible to curb his limitations, as he walked into the Boys Battalion of the Indian Army in Pune with little-to-nothing as personal property. He had a natural gift for boxing, moving up the ranks and getting the national title in 1965.
From this point till 1972 his journey his remarkable – he was a part of the Indo-Pak war of 1965, got injured in the crossfire that paralysed him knee down, then became a para-athlete in a sport that was new to him and ended up clinching India’s first-ever individual gold medal at the Paralympics.
But despite achieving almost everything, he still hasn’t got a Khel Ratna. Scratch that. He doesn’t even have an Arjuna Award.
“I broke the world record but I did not beg for an Arjuna Award,” said Petkar. “Now, the government’s rule is to file the application and do a police verification and all. I have broken the world record and the government knows everything about me. The government should come to me and ask me for my details. Why should I go to them?”
Despite not getting the recognition he deserves, Petkar seems to be at peace with his achievements, leading a satisfied life, sharing the happiness of athletes who have achieved greatness since his time.
How does that happen? Well, here’s his story: