Walking Tax: Former World Champion Manasi Joshi reveals the 'real' cost of playing para-badminton
From literally "paying to walk" to facing financial disparity when compared to able-bodied counterparts, Manasi Joshi highlights the 'real' woes of financing a para-badminton career in India, that media often ignores.
Indian para-badminton player Manasi Joshi recently tweeted about ascending to the No. 1 spot in the World Para-Badminton Mixed Doubles SL3-SL4 category alongside playing partner Ruthick Ragupathi. Additionally, in the latest rankings released by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), Joshi also retained the top spot in the women's Para-Badminton singles rankings.
Collecting wins in Spain, Bahrain, Dubai and Canada, Ahmedabad-based Joshi has observed a welcome burst of form. It would be only fair to assume hence that ascendance to the top of your craft usually comes with lucrative perks. These include (and are not limited to) sponsor, media, and federation-based opportunities. It also opens the door for government funding of different kinds. Yet the reality for para-badminton stars is not-so-starry.
While much of the current journalistic literature in the subcontinent focuses on inspiration-porn coverage of the adapted sports movement, one wonders about the finances of a para-athlete who plays adapted sport at the highest level.
In 2019, Indian badminton saw two female World Champions - while Manasi Joshi won in the SL3 category, it was able-bodied shuttler PV Sindhu who defeated Nozomi Okuhara in Basel to crown herself as the World Champion, after a long wait.
Yet while PV Sindhu became the toast of the town with fans, brands, corporates, and media making a beeline for her and the BAI showered her with Rs. 20 lakh (25K USD), the Sports Ministry and the Kerala Olympic Association rewarded her with another Rs.10 lakh (13K USD) each, for Manasi Joshi, comparatively, it was more lukewarm financially, save for well-wishes, a bunch of appreciation, heartfelt kudos and cheers.
Even though Manasi Joshi has been performing consistently well on the BWF circuit and has wins galore to her name, despite these achievements, para-badminton players are not paid for winning tournaments, unlike their able-bodied counterparts.
One only needs to look at the post-Olympic reception of medal winners in badminton to get an idea of the rewards that come with winning able-bodied World Championships or Olympic competitions.
On winning the 2019 World Championship, Manasi Joshi was given a Rs. 20 lakh (25K USD) cash grant from the Central Government. Her home state of Maharashtra, however, does not have an inclusive sports policy for para-athletes and para-badminton. In the past, she has received Rs. 1 lakh (1200 USD) for a bronze at the Asian Games 2018 from the state.
But as Manasi puts it, para-badminton players play for medals, love, and fresh air. Quite often we forget that persons with disabilities incur additional costs in their daily lives.
Now imagine playing world-class para-sport with a disability in the middle of a pandemic.
The 'real' picture of playing para-sports
When Joshi met with an accident a decade ago on the way to work, she required her leg to be amputated. Months of rehabilitation followed and then came the subsequent need for a prosthetic leg. That story is well-known.
The cost of such a prosthetic leg at the time in 2011, can be estimated between Rs. 10-15 lakh (12K-18K USD) not taking into consideration the ensuing 5% GST that follows.
Joshi's first leg was one that was meant only for walking and daily life, but she adjusted and learned to play para-badminton, winning gold in an office tournament against able-bodied players months into rehab.
Since 2016, Joshi has slowly made the ascent – playing badminton first at the National, and later at the International Level. But along with her rise in the badminton rankings, the actual cost of a prosthetic has now also gone up to Rs. 17-20 lakh (21K-25K USD) and every two years it needs to be sent to Germany.
The owner of said prosthetic is then presented with a service bill to the tune of close to Rs. 4 lakhs (5K USD). They also come with a shelf-life, needing to be replaced every 7-10 years. She also adds that replicating knees, feet, and ankles are individually expensive costs that add to the ever-growing bill.
The other interesting aspect of this, as a woman athlete is how Manasi has to constantly replace her clothing - the prosthetic tears pants often.
Joshi wonders out loud – the average able-bodied person would likely aspire to buy a car and a house in their lifetime. In her case, she must worry about a new foot every decade. Persons with disabilities, she says shouldn't have to compromise their lives.
So how does she make her money to fund a sports career and everyday life?
Joshi has a few sponsors who help across the board by reimbursing all her sport-related expenses.
For example, one such corporate sponsor - Welspun Foundation based in Mumbai, which supports women athletes, both able-bodied and disabled, gives her the support of a nutritionist, which means one less expense. They also take care of her tournament expenses.
Joshi is a part of an ever-growing fraternity of women athletes who are leveraging their social media following on the internet to bypass traditional forms of media coverage and thereby create their own narrative away from the inspiration-porn lens that has persisted and amplified in an internet age. This thought can also be extended to disabled and minority athletes across the board in the Global South.
In the early days of her para-badminton career, Joshi worked a software job and crowdfunded her sports expenses through her account on Facebook. For a moment in time, the predecessor to Tik-Tok - "Dubsmash" was also useful in building a public platform.
It was after the World Championship win in 2019, that Joshi's social following started really showing serious numbers. By this time, her sister had begun taking care of her finances and off-court affairs. Through Twitter, came another offer of support from a Kolkata-based organization called Mallcom and Joshi began forging relationships with Corporate India. Through the organisation's CSR initiative, they take care of her training expenses.
On occasion, she is also invited by corporates and organizations who pay her for hosting and speaking at corporate gatherings and educational institutions at home and abroad.
Indian athletes who win medals at international competitions are promised cash awards from the central and state governments respectively. These rewards depend on the sport, athlete, and their importance in the hierarchy of things in governance.
Joshi is also employed with Bharat Petroleum through their sports quota. The organization was one of the first public sector units in India to recruit persons with disabilities through this sports quota.
She was recently included in the list of Indian athletes that are part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). This will help fund her future expenses with an eye on the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.
TOPS is a central government initiative that typically looks after International and at-home training, competition equipment, and coaching camps. It also provides a monthly stipend of Rs. 50K (650 USD) for each athlete.
There are a myriad number of schemes both public and private that are required to fund an athlete's career.
In Joshi's case, it took corporate sponsors, crowdfunding, and government assistance to help her ascend to the top.
Journalists need to realize the need to move away from inspiration-based coverage of disability sports and foray into other aspects of athletes with disabilities and their relations with society at large.
Joshi says media people ask for head-to-toe photos of her – so they can highlight her disability and a prosthetic foot, rather than her ability to play badminton or efforts at disability activism.
When an athlete gets lost in the byzantine maze of bureaucratic paperwork, for example, the media could help highlight the delay, inequalities, and social injustices. Joshi herself has been vocal about the GST on assistive equipment and the need for more attention to disability taxes.
Going forward there is a need to implement the Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 with a focus on inclusive sports. This is a requisite for the development and success of disabled athletes in the subcontinent and help in bringing about the severely-lacking balance in the lens with which we survey able-bodied and para-sports.