India’s “friendly foes” in a record squad for the Tokyo Paralympics

India’s Manoj Sarkar and Pramod Bhagat, world No. 1 badminton pair in the SL-3 category aiming for gold at the Tokyo Paralympics, hope they get to face each other in singles like they do in other tournaments.

Bhagat, world No.3 in singles, has beaten Sarkar many times but the latter wants to be on the winning side if they meet this time. “You always have a soft corner when you play against your friend and big brother. But to win, you have to have something special in your armoury,” Sarkar said on Monday.

Sarkar has two singles bronze at the world championships, besides two gold and a silver with doubles partner Bhagat. The Arjuna awardee also won bronze at the Asian Para Games in 2018 and gold and bronze at the Asian Para Badminton Championships in 2016.

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Sarkar, 31, has a lower limb condition (polio). He wants to win medals for his parents. He used his mother’s “sari” as net while playing badminton with friends in an open court as a boy. Though he beat able-bodied opponents as a teenager, he wasn’t considered as one of them. It was then that his coach DK Sen advised that he should try his luck in para badminton. “Sen sir told me I had the potential to play for India,” he said.

India’s biggest squad

India have entered their largest contingent of 54 athletes this time and are aiming to touch double digits in medals. Javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia, a double gold medallist, and high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu—both won gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics—lead India’s challenge. India will compete in nine sports in the Games, being held under strict Covid protocols.

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Indian officials expect around 15 medals, including nine gold. Their assessment is based on the standard of the athletes. At least four Indians are ranked world No.1, six are world No. 2 and 10 are world No. 3.

India have won 12 medals in all in Paralympics since it first took part in 1972. In 2016, India won 2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze.

Jhajharia, 40, whose left hand was amputated after coming into contact with a live electric wire as a child, is aiming for a hat-trick of gold in the F-46 category after wins in 2004 and 2016. The category is for athletes with upper limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement.

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Mariyappan was five when a bus ran over his right leg below the knee. He will defend the high jump title in the T63 category. He is world No.2 in his division. He will carry the Indian tricolor at the opening ceremony on Tuesday where a 11-member contingent will take part.

The Paralympics will feature around 4,500 athletes from 163 countries, competing in 540 disciplines in 22 sports.

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