It could not have been a better debut. Para badminton made its long-awaited entrance at the Paralympics and left everyone spellbound.
The five days of action showcased everything that a sports fan could ask for – exciting matches, inspiring stories and engaging personalities.
The human element
While the badminton itself was top-class, the stories of some of the participants added to the significance of what was being witnessed. There was, for instance, Ritah Asiimwe, who lost her dominant right hand to machete-wielding assailants. Unwilling to let the new situation dominate her life, she chose to relearn skills, such as writing and playing badminton, with her left hand.
Daiki Kajiwara was a baseball player before an accident at the age of 13 led to the amputation of a leg. Undeterred, he took up wheelchair badminton; at his home Paralympics his performance suggested he would be the next big star of WH2, beating Korean great Kim Jung Jun in straight games in the final.
Then there was Karin Suter-Erath, former elite handball player who had taken up wheelchair tennis and played at the Paralympics in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, before turning to Para badminton. Suter-Erath was within one win of taking her second Paralympics medal, having medalled previously in tennis at Athens 2004.
For Krishna Nagar, who won the men’s singles SH6, the win would serve not only as a tale of personal triumph, but an inspirational one for the larger community of the disabled. “My parents and relatives are all of normal height, and of course I did face problems in terms of social stigma, but this win shows that no one should be counted out. I do not want to dwell on the negative side of things. My parents, uncle and aunt have helped immensely and I’d like to dedicate this gold to them.”
His compatriot Manoj Sarkar’s journey was just as challenging, for Sarkar came from a family of modest means. What his family lacked in resources, they provided in encouragement, and Sarkar would remember his mother, who had bought him his first racket by selling beedis (a cheap alternative to cigarettes).
Culmination of a Long Journey
Irrespective of whether they won a medal or not, the Paralympics was the realisation of a dream that had spanned a decade or more for several senior players.
“It’s been 14 years now since I started playing. So far it’s been unbelievable,” said Krysten Coombs.
SU5 gold medallist Cheah Liek Hou recalled his career in Para badminton that had started in 2003. To those who had spent a lifetime competing in Para badminton, the Paralympics was a great chapter in their lives.
While regular scenes of celebration and disappointment played out, what was striking was the camaraderie between victor and vanquished. Leani Ratri Oktila, for instance, despite being denied a women’s singles gold that would’ve helped her to a three-event sweep, hugged her vanquisher Cheng Hefang on the podium in one of the most memorable images of the Paralympics.
Contributing to the Community
While they have to deal with their own challenges, several Para badminton players sought to keep the lens on the wider community. Australia’s Caitlin Dransfield, for instance, is doing a bachelor’s course on disability, while also using her extra time as a disability support worker.
“I want to work with children with disabilities and get them into sport because this has opened my eyes to what’s out there,” she says. “There are so many opportunities for people with disabilities. But they don’t know about that. I want to get more disabled people into sport.”
Through her own example, she hopes to inspire others like her.
“I’ve always loved learning about disability, proving to people what I can achieve.”