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Monday, September 20, 2021

India soars after Mariyappan, Kumar leap

Thangavelu Mariyappan and Sharad Kumar win silver and bronze respectively in Tokyo Paralympics high jump T42 event.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: September 1, 2021 1:55:17 pm
Mariyappan, Sharad Kumar win silver and bronze in high jump (Source: Screenshot)

As he sobbed alone inside his room at the Olympic Village, overlooking the Tokyo Bay, Sharad Kumar was convinced he was being punished for some ‘sin’. On Monday night, the eve of his event at the Paralympics, he accidentally injured his meniscus. “I didn’t think I’d be able to participate,” Kumar says. “I told my parents that it’s done and maybe I’m being punished for some sin. I was crying the whole night.”

A couple of rooms away, Mariyappan Thangavelu spent the night dealing with his own disappointments. The Rio Games gold medalist landed in Tokyo, and almost immediately was sent into isolation after being identified as a close contact of a person on his flight who tested positive for Covid-19. It robbed him of the opportunity to carry India’s flag during the opening ceremony but crucially for him, it affected his training schedule.

On Tuesday, Mariyappan and Kumar left behind their sorrows and soared to the podium. The duo won silver and bronze medals, respectively, in the high jump T63 (combined with T42) class – for athletes with limb deficiencies – to take India’s tally to 10. It is the first time the country has touched double digits at the Games – in fact, India had won a total of just 12 medals from the 1968 edition until 2016.

Contrasting journeys

Mariyappan is the thread that ties India’s two most successful campaigns – Rio and Tokyo. The silver medalist, who could soon be on the silver screen, from a fairly nondescript village in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district suffered a life-threatening accident. When he was five years old, Mariyappan was hit by a bus while walking to school. His right leg was gravely injured and he turned to sport after his physical education teacher urged him to take up high jump.

Mariyappan, until class 11, would jump on top of a truckload of sand until he was spotted by India coach Satyanarayana, who took him to Bangalore. He was shaped into a world-beater at the SAI facility before he eventually won the gold medal at the Rio Paralympics. Shortly after the Games, it was announced that Mariyappan’s life story would be the subject of a feature film.

Six months after the announcement, Mariyappan’s name cropped up in a case where a person from Salem was found dead. According to reports, the high jumper was questioned and subsequently cleared. And the movie project hasn’t yet taken off.

READ | Could not give my best due to rain: Mariayappan Thangavelu after winning silver

Kumar’s journey has been vastly different from Mariyappan’s. “Sharad suffered from polio at the age of 18 months,” his father Surender says. The family took a loan to send him to a school in Darjeeling so that he could have a good education. There, Kumar took up high jump and soon became one of India’s top athletes. But his luck with regards to the Paralympics hadn’t been great thus far. Just before the London Paralympics, however, the 29-year-old was banned for two years for a doping violation – an allegation he denies even now, insisting his supplements were sabotaged during his time away from the national camp in Bengaluru. In 2015, he suffered a tendon injury followed by another knee injury eight months prior to Rio Paralympics, where he finished sixth.

‘Very dangerous’

To him, it felt like Tokyo would turn into a tragedy like his previous two Paralympics. Kumar was on the phone for most of Monday night, speaking to his parents, brother and friends, showered with advice. “My dad told me to read Bhagavad Gita and calm down,” he smiles. “My brother and friends said just go and participate, you have already proven yourself. But it’s so easy for people to say just go and jump. As an athlete, when you can’t even tolerate an injury, it’s something else. I had the task of jumping and trying to not further damage my knee.”

It didn’t help that it started pouring as their event progressed. At one point, Kumar even approached the technical officials and requested them to halt the event as it was getting ‘very dangerous’. “I was wearing spikes in just one leg so it was a very dangerous situation,” he says in an online interaction facilitated by the Paralympics Committee of India and Eurosport. “I spoke to the officials. (But) the guys with spikes on both legs did not back us so we continued competing.”

Until the very end, Kumar and Mariyappan were locked in an intense battle for the podium position along with American Sam Grewe, the silver medalist from the Rio Paralympics, who needed amputation after suffering from bone cancer as a child. Kumar ended with a bronze medal with a best clearance of 1.83m. Mariyappan and Grewe, meanwhile, continued their rivalry from the Rio Games.

When the bar was set at the height of 1.88m, Mariyappan could not clear in his three attempts while Grewe glided over it in his final attempt to reverse the result from the previous edition. “The sock on my other leg (the impaired right leg) got wet and it was difficult to jump,” Mariyappan said. “I have cleared 1.90m in the past. But the rain played spoilsport.”

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