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“This is a slightly complicated question for me,” says Manoj when I ask him since when he has been playing Badminton. “The reason being that I have played Badminton both as an able-bodied and a para-athlete.”
“I used to play badminton ever since I was a child. And I was good at the sport too,” he continues, as he recounts the number of times he went into the deep-end of junior tournaments.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck soon after. Manoj Sarkar was diagnosed with Polio during his early years, which saw his highly-promising career as an able-bodied Badminton halted in its tracks. Or so it seemed at that time.
“Soon after, I met DK Sen Sir, a Badminton coach and father of Lakshya Sen. He gave me the idea to try out my hand at para-sports. In all honesty, I didn’t know much about this particular field before then. But he guided me towards the same and also introduced me to my coach, Gaurav Khanna,” he recalls.
DK Sen’s intervention proved to be critical for Manoj, and he was once again set on the path he was meant to be on, all along.
“Things finally got back on track, and I started competing again. It was in 2011 that I played my first para-tournament. Initially, I just wanted to take a look at what exactly this field offers. I wanted to see if the sport was sustainable and if it was competitive enough. To be honest, I was astonished at the level of competition that existed in Para-Badminton. And therefore, I decided to fully commit to the sport,” the shuttler recollects.
“I don’t know whether it was purely due to my skills or due to other’s blessings that I won medals right from the get-go,” Manoj continues, “Apart from that winning feeling, Para-Badminton also allowed me to fulfil a lifelong dream, i.e., to represent India at the highest of levels.”
For a sportsperson, external support is always essential. It provides a necessary validation in times of doubt. Moreover, it helps the said sportsperson to deal with both victories and defeats in the right way. For Manoj, it was no different.
“My mother supported me right from the beginning; as a mother usually does! My father took a little bit of time coming around, though. He didn’t fully support me initially, but when he saw what I was capable of, especially after the medals started pouring in, he gave me his full support. He just told me that he believed in me and that I keep moving forward.”
The shuttler then goes on to state another source of support. However, it is not one which many expect:
“Parents usually support a kid in their decisions. However, you don’t expect the same from the rest. Back where I lived, people used to call me crazy when I would sometimes practice in the noon. A lot of questions were asked of me, and a lot of things were said. But it is because of them that I am what I am today.”
“They are the ones who motivate us truly,” he continues, “I believe in their comments and questions, subconsciously they are challenging you. “Dum hai toh kar ke dikhao” prove us wrong if you are capable enough. I derive a lot of positivity from other people’s negativity!”
“When I got the Arjuna Award, a journalist asked me who would I like to thank. After the usual regards to my family, my coaches, and the rest, I told him that I would especially like to thank those who have chosen to ignore me,” Manoj says.
Arjuna Award has been a big issue for the shuttler and his entourage over the last couple of years. And even after he was bestowed with this honour, Manoj was left discontent with a couple of decisions.
“I got the Arjuna Award this year. It is a big honour for me. But there were a couple of reasons which upset me. Firstly, I wanted my father to be with me when I received the Arjuna. Unfortunately, he passed away last year.”
“Secondly, I was a bit upset because my coaches, who have worked tirelessly over the years, were ignored for the Dronacharya Awards. My coaches currently have three Arjuna Awardees under them but were still somehow ignored. Not only that, but a lot of other Paralympic coaches were also eventually ignored from the process,” he states.
“A lot of people don’t realise what our coaches mean to us,” continues Manoj, “The connect they have with us is something extraordinary. Take Gaurav Sir, for example. He has treated me like his son ever since I met him. That emotional connect, along with the countless hours put in by our coaches is what drives us forward. That’s why I was especially hurt when Gaurav Sir was overlooked, along with several other para-coaches, for the Dronacharya Award.”
A year before, the para-shuttler was snubbed for the award, leaving him with a lot of questions and no answers.
“The whole issue arose last year. I had the most number of points when being considered for the award. But somehow, two other athletes were chosen for the honours. I, personally had absolutely no objection to them being given the award. My only objection was that if a certain process has been laid down by the authorities, why then, are they not complying with it?”
“Sadly, not one of my questions were answered,” He remarks.
This was one of the most challenging times in Manoj’s life, as he recalls, “I was disturbed by the whole process and with my father passing away around the same time.”
Manoj’s performances on the court were also affected by the whole situation. However, the para-shuttler has never been the one to give up easily.
“I introspected, as a result, and concluded. I realised that when I was a child, I played just for the love of the sport. Back then, I would never have thought that one day I would reach such a high level. I played because I loved to play. As a result, I decided to ignore all these material benefits and focus on doing what I love.”
Things are a lot different now.
As mentioned earlier, Manoj Sarkar has finally been given the recognition he deserved. And he is very thankful to everyone who helped him reach this level. However, he is still one of the very few para-athletes to receive this honour. Unfortunately, Manoj is still part of a field that is mostly ignored.
Nevertheless, the Arjuna awardee has some ideas on how to improve the state of para-sports.
“Certain things help us gain recognition. When we achieve something big, we are certainly thrown into the limelight. But there are other, more organic ways to promote para-sports as well. For example, why not create specific fields for para-athletes, which contain their sport-specific equipment. Moreover, you need to recognise those who are already working hard in the field. If they are acknowledged for what they do, no doubt that will attract more people to join in.”
“Another thing is financial help. GoSports Foundation was particularly helpful to me. That is exactly the kind of financial assistance we need to move forward,” the shuttler says.
For now, however, Manoj will turn his attention to the upcoming Asian Para Games, for which he admits, he is somewhat nervous!
“To be honest, I am a little nervous going into the Asian Para Games. I don’t doubt my ability, but to adjust to the suddenly raised expectations is giving me some pre-tournament jitters. I used to be calm when no one paid attention!” jokes Manoj.
Finally, before heading off. Manoj answers my final question- what do sports mean to him?
“First and foremost, it is my passion. It is my love towards the field that has kept me going for ages and will keep me going for the foreseeable future,” the Arjuna Awardee signs off.