It was around 3 am, Indian Standard Time, in September 2016 when the F46* javelin throw final of the Paralympic Games were underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It would prove to be one of the greatest sporting moments in Indian history as Devendra Jhajharia won his second Paralympics gold medal. No Indian had ever managed to win more than one gold medal (individual events) at the Olympics / Paralympics before that night.
We will get back to those moments in a bit. Before that, context.
The memories of the Rio Olympic Games were largely disappointing from an Indian point of view. The largest contingent that had ever been sent to the Olympic Games had managed to win two medals: Sakshi Malik (wrestling, bronze) and PV Sindhu (badminton, silver) had salvaged some pride for India in Brazil, because otherwise it was a case of close misses for athletes and embarrassing moments for the officials.
And after the media mayhem that usually accompanies any Olympic Games campaign, things were starting to die down. Sakshi and Sindhu were celebrated for their gritty performances but elsewhere, there was only disappointment and finger-pointing as the country wondered what went wrong in Rio.
Back to those wee hours on the September night (14th in India, still 13th in Brazil), an Indian was getting ready for his third attempt in the javelin throw final. He was already setting the pace for the field and was looking good to win a medal but he had more than just that on his mind. He had won the gold medal 12 years back at Athens with a world record but had to wait all those years for another chance at the biggest stage for para-athletes. It must have been excruciating to wait that long to participate again at the Paralympics (his event did not feature in 2008 and 2012) but excruciating pain is not a strange feeling for this sportsperson as he readied himself and began his run-up.
“So Devendra [Jhajharia], the hero of Athens in 2004, is here. He is the leader [in this event]. Two solid attempts for him so far. So... Devendra in the third round.... (as the javelin soars into the night sky)... he is the world record holder..... Oooooh and he is the world record breaker! It stood for 12 years since his Athens gold and Devendra sends it out to the horizons. It’s gone well beyond 62 metres, by a long way. Look at that! Sensational throw, 63.97. Devendra’s wait is over!”
He started the night as the underdog to the current world champion to Guo Chunliang, but after setting the early mark, Jhajharia threw a stunning 63.97m in his 3rd attempt, beating his Athens mark of 62.15m. It was no surprise to see the 35-year-old break into a dance when he saw his mark on the screen. He knew it.
Without the buzz that surrounded the Olympics contingent, Jhajharia (as did the three other Paralympic medallists from India) made sure Indians woke up that morning on September 14 with a historic sporting feat to celebrate.
Two world records, two historic gold medals, separated by 12 years: all with one good arm and cheating death as a kid.
“I liked [javelin throw] because I could do it with one arm,” Jhajharia has said on more than occasion. It is a simple yet powerful statement that throws into light the 38-year-old’s attitude to find his passion and succeed with it.
Elite javelin throwers will tell you the importance of the non-throwing arm in achieving the best result but Jhajharia does not have a choice. Growing up in his native village in Churu, Rajasthan, Jhajharia suffered an accident when he was around eight years old. He came in contact with a live electric cable (11 kilo volts) that touched the branch of a tree he was climbing. The electrocution nearly killed him.
In an interview with Mint in April, Jhajharia had recounted how he had been declared dead after the accident where he lost his left arm.
“When they got me down from the tree, they had declared me dead. My left arm was all burnt. But slowly, I regained consciousness. When they took me to the doctor, he said I will never be strong in my life. But God had a different plan.”
“Lying in the hospital bed, I wondered what I would make of my life and how I would face my friends,” Jhajharia told ESPN India. “When I returned home after six months, I realized that everything and everyone around me had changed. The children I used to play with earlier in the neighbourhood ridiculed and shooed me away.”
It could have bogged any kid down but as it turned out, it was the origin story for this soon-to-be super athlete.
In an interaction with Scroll.in, he recalled: “A lot of mothers would have asked their sons (like him) 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.”
After clinching the first place at a district-level championship with his homemade javelin when he was 14, despite not having any formal training, Jhajharia knew he had it in him. “It felt like I had won an Olympic Gold, because it was a huge achievement for me. Somewhere deep inside my heart I didn’t want anyone to call me weak. I proved myself to be strong, and showed everyone that I was as capable as any other athlete,” Jhajharia told Forbes India.
Dronacharya Awardee coach RD Singh spotted Jhajharia’s talent in 1997 and pushed him to take up sport full time. His first moment of glory came in Athens 2004, when in his first Paralaympic Games apperance, Jhajharia set a world record with a distance of 62.15m, shattering the previous mark in his category by some distance (59.77m).
He then won gold medal at the 2013 IPC Worlds before winning silver in the 2015 edition that made sure he would return to Paralympics after 12 years. “It was like waiting for the Kumbh Mela,” he had said.
Sure enough, he was one of India’s biggest medal prospects at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio but being assured of a medal does not mean anything, as many Indian athletes can vouch for.
Under pressure, he delivered and how.
In his view, the 2017 Khel Ratna award came nearly more than a decade late as he thought he deserved recognition for his achievement in Athens. Jhajharia told Scroll.in after his nomination for the highest sporting honour in the country (the first para-athlete to get the award) that while winning awards always feels good, it wasn’t his ultimate goal.
“Winning awards is one thing, playing for the country is another,” he said. “My main goal was to play to my best abilities and win medals for the country.”
Here’s the full video for javelin throw F46 final at Rio 2016:
Here’s the video of Devendra Jhajharia’s record-breaking throw:
(*F46 category refers to upper limb/s affected by limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement)