Farman Basha, India’s greatest hope for a medal at the London Paralympics, is watching the opening ceremony for the Games in his room. As the Indian flag-bearing contingent appears on screen, Basha begins to laugh. As he laughs harder and harder, as he begins to hoot until tears stream down his face, his friend, Jaideep Singh — parathletic discus thrower — mutters into the phone “ You should write that Farman Basha has gone crazy, that’s what they’ll all say. Who wouldn’t go crazy, had they been in his place?”.
A month ago, at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) gymnasium in Bengaluru, Basha, the senior-most athlete of the Indian contingent was lifting 165 kilos— nearly thrice his body weight — on most days, and 170 after an exceptionally good training session. Coaches and athletes, who had seen him perform, were already congratulating him for an assured Bronze, if not a Silver medal at the London Paralympics. In the past 15 days, Basha’s performance underwent a steady decline. “I have no hope anymore. No one here cares about the medal,” he’d said on the phone a week ago. On Thursday, he was proven right. At the Paralympic Powerlifting event, Basha lifted a mere 155 kgs, his personal worst, and finished fifth, even as Nigerian powerlifter Yakubu Adesokan set a new world record with his 180 kg lift.
While there could be several reasons an athlete does not perform his best at the final moment of reckoning — nerves, stress, poor training or even pure luck — one reason that is certain to affect his performance negatively is the absence of his coach. Basha, who had trained under weightlifting coach Satyanarayan for the past six months, has been making do for the past fortnight with Vijay Balchandra, a coach who was assigned to him the day he reached London. Although Balchandra helped Basha the best he could, stood by him through his three lifts at the final event, as the two tried to convince themselves that Basha could still lift 165 kgs (in spite of the fact that he hadn’t lifted anything more than 158 since he reached London); Balchandra says he knew it was a losing battle. “If an athlete does not steadily improve as his event draws close, his confidence begins to break. Once he loses faith, nothing can help him,” says Balchandra, shaking his head.
In the absence of his coach, Basha spent his first week in London with no training at all. “They told me to eat, sleep and enjoy London,” he says. In the second week, he was assigned a general coach who was responsible for training him along with 10 other athletes in for various, entirely different sporting and athletic events. When Basha attempted to demand answers from the Paralympics Committee of India, he was warned against speaking to the press. Another para-athlete, Amit Kumar Saroha, a paraplegic discus thrower, threatened to boycott his event if his coach Naval Singh was not permitted to enter the Village. As the result of a few scattered reports, Naval Singh and Satyanarayan were permitted access to their athletes for two hours every day, and the athletes were warned once more to stop speaking to journalists. A media-savvy PCI still failed to note that two-hour visits from their coaches was no substitute for the day-long training schedules athletes were accustomed to over the past few months in preparation for the Games.
The reason coaches have not been given proper accreditation to enter the Village, athletes believe, is because the PCI wishes to give government officials the treatment and accommodation ordinarily reserved for the Paralympic contingent. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to Tehelka, a senior source in the committee admitted that no other country had a government official to athlete ratio as skewed as ours. “The ratio of officials, which includes coaches and escorts, to athletes is supposed to be 6:1. But we were told that we had to include certain government officials and their relatives in the total tally, even at the cost of coaches.” The source added, as a kindly rejoinder, “But the athletes should not get involved in politics. They should just focus on winning medals.”
Unfortunately, the two are not always mutually exclusive. On the night of the opening ceremony, Jaideep Singh admitted that he wasn’t on the field with the rest of his team because he was yet to receive his official blazer, or a training kit. “We would not worry about politics and focus on our event if we didn’t have to beg the Committee for shoes, kits, blazers, and a coach,” Basha smiles resignedly, as he wheels himself out of the athlete’s lounge at the Excel Stadium. Balchandra is still brooding over the lost medal. “Satyanarayan understood Basha’s body and its limits — he would stand on his back, pull his arms, stretch his dorsal muscles. I can’t do that, I’m afraid I of injuring him.”
Around us, the press surrounds athletes and their coaches. In a moment of delayed exhilaration, Russian power lifter and silver-medal winner Vladimir Balynets’ coach embraces Balynets and lifts him clean off the ground — “this man is a champion,” he roars. The last time Basha spoke to his coach was this morning, before he left for the event, when Satyanarayan told him he’d be watching from the audience. “I tried calling him after I came out of the arena, but he won’t answer. What can anyone say to a man who finishes fifth?” Farman Basha laughs.
Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.