India’s first Special Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, a 22-year-old hawker, has his eyes set on Winter Olympics 2018. Can
“Come, aunty, buy from me. Rs.20 for the items in this line. I have cheaper ones too for Rs.10,” Rajkumar calls out to a woman passing by. “These jhumkas are for Rs.35. No, don’t buy that, it doesn’t work. Take a look at these chains. These have guarantee. You can return them if the colour fades.”
Rajkumar is a bit different from most hawkers here. For one, he suffers from a moderate form of intellectual disability and hyperactivity disorder. Two, despite spending most of his time trying to make a living here, Rajkumar has also persisted with school and has just passed his class X exams.
But here’s what makes him truly special: He is also an ace figure skater who got India its first international gold in a sport few know about in this country. Certainly, no one in Sadar Bazaar has a clue that this short, slightly built boy with a mop of thick hair glides and soars on a pair of blades on ice. How do you reconcile those two images? A boy, one among many selling wares in the heat and chaos of this madly busy market. A boy, making long, graceful arcs on ice.
Rajkumar blends into the scenery here. Every morning, from 5-8, he is there selling imitation jewellery—and dodging the police’s occasional raids.
“I have been beaten several times by police officers because I couldn’t move my patri in time. They don’t believe I am a national-level athlete,” says Rajkumar with a dejected smile, keeping the money from his latest sale carefully in a black sling purse. He earns up to Rs.400 a day, which he spends on practice at the ice rink in a mall in Gurgaon—the only ice-skating rink in the National Capital Region.
Ice skating is an expensive sport. Good-quality skates cost upwards of Rs.10,000. Then there are the costume and training expenses. Rajkumar has to spend at least Rs.1,000 every day on practice. His rising expenses forced his father, also a hawker in Sadar Bazaar, to ask him to start his own patri. That has only fuelled his passion. He believes figure skating is the only way out of this hand-to-mouth existence.
It is 10 in the morning on a weekday and we are at Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Stores are just opening for the day. We make our way to iSkate, the ice rink and café on the sixth floor of the mall, where Rajkumar comes for practice every day. When the music starts playing and the lights dim, Rajkumar comes into his own.
Dressed in a snug black costume, he glides and pirouettes across the white rink with consummate ease. He slides into a backwards crossover, does a waltz jump and eases into a glide again, performs a death drop and then eases into a backwards spiral. Next, he goes into a backwards crossover and segues into a medley of one-foot spins. He ends the routine with a forward chassé, culminating in a lunge.
Like a skilled musician who doesn’t read music, Rajkumar is not versed in the semantics of his sport. “I don’t know the names of all the moves I do,” he says. “I have learnt them by observing other skaters and through YouTube.”
Rajkumar belongs to a small village near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. He fell from the terrace of his village home one night, hurting the back of his head, an injury that would render him unable to do routine things such as reading, writing or playing with other children. Rajkumar says he was about five years old at the time.
“No matter how hard I tried to study, I could not understand a thing,” Rajkumar says. “If I tried too hard, I used to faint.
“The other kids avoided me. I looked different, with unkempt hair, a runny nose and a dirty face. It didn’t matter to me though. Even the doctors here in Delhi had said I had no hope of becoming normal again. But thanks to the Special Olympics Bharat team and this sport, I feel more than normal today.”
After Rajkumar got some basic treatment at the village, his father, Ramkesh Tiwari, then working as a motor mechanic in Delhi, asked the family to join him. So Rajkumar, along with his mother and four siblings, arrived in Delhi in 2008.
“I wanted to be like other kids. Play with them. Do the things they did easily. But I could not,” he recalls. “Neighbours in the village started calling me mental.”
In Delhi, he got in touch with the Prabha Institute of Fine Arts Culture and Crafts for Handicapped and Disabled Persons, a non-profit, and started playing sports, including basketball and handball. A team from Special Olympics Bharat, the national federation for the development of sports for persons with intellectual disabilities, would visit such NGOs to spot athletes who could represent India in the Special Olympics.
Founded in 1968 by John F. Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics are the world’s largest sports federation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and are recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The Special Olympic World Games, held every two years, alternate between summer and winter games. The next Special Olympics World Winter Games are scheduled to be held in Austria in 2017.
The Special Olympics Bharat team spotted Rajkumar sometime in 2011, and he started training and touring with them. In early 2012, during one of these tours to Gulmarg (Jammu and Kashmir), he tried skating for the first time and fell in love with it.
“I felt ‘normal’ on the ice. I didn’t feel this way playing handball or basketball,” says Rajkumar. “The icy breeze hitting my face and the skates gliding through the snow, that experience can’t be explained in words.”
His mentor there gave him the address of the Gurgaon mall where he could practise after his return to New Delhi. It took him a while to get used to the ice rink, but in about six months, and without any proper coaching, he struck gold at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, in the singles competition. He also won a silver with Kirti Kalra in pairs.
“We took four athletes to Korea that year and won three medals,” says S.K. Malik, who retired as air marshal from the Indian Air Force and is now president of the Delhi chapter of the Special Olympics Bharat. “Now, more people are aware of Special Olympics and are coming forward to participate. Rajkumar’s performance has inspired a good number of people.”
Barely a year later, however, Rajkumar was back to square one, selling trinkets and missing training camps and international events due to a lack of funding.
Rajkumar’s struggle to find sponsors and funding isn’t a one-off case. Even the five-time Olympian and Asian record-setting luger Shiva Keshavan has struggled his entire career to find sponsors. In India, where sports can be categorized largely as “cricket” and “non-cricket”, finding support for a niche sport like ice skating isn’t easy.
As a sport, figure skating has been around since 1882, and was included in the official programme of the first Olympic Winter Games, held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. It came to India with the British as a recreational sport.
Neither Rajkumar nor his parents knew anything about ice sports till he started practising.
“When news broke of Rajkumar winning a gold medal, neighbours asked me what sport Rajkumar plays,” Ramkesh says. “I didn’t know the name. I told them to watch the news instead.”
It also says a lot about the condition of the sport; its nodal agency in India doesn’t even have an official website. All the Ice Skating Association of India has is an ill-maintained Facebook page—the last update was on 27 May, nearly two months after the previous post. The link for the official website does not work, taking users to a different search page. Repeated phone calls to its landline telephone number and emails seeking comment on the story did not get any response.
Rajkumar, therefore, doesn’t let go of an opportunity to seek support. His first costume was a hand-me-down from another skater. “Once, when my skates broke midway through practice at iSkate, a Japanese man who was practising gave me his old spare ones,” he recalls. Much of the fee for a special camp (Rs.80,000) before his 2013 trip to South Korea came from contributions from his landlord and others. Many others have promised support, but not delivered.
Rajkumar’s mother, Leelavati, supports him, but his father has doubts. “I am happy that Rajkumar has reached this far, but I am sad too because I can’t see any way forward,” says Ramkesh. His face is shrivelled and small, his cheeks sunken, and he looks way older than 58 years. There is rent to be paid for their one-room house in Paharganj, seven mouths to be fed and the education of the other children to take care of. His weariness is palpable.
“When I was in the village, people would say life changes once someone steps outside the country. But that hasn’t happened with me. We are still where we were some years back,” says Rajkumar.
But this hasn’t deterred him from wanting to do better in the sport. Unlike some of his fellow skaters, Rajkumar did not give up the sport. Regular practice improved his game and he started participating in the normal category. Now, he is eyeing a berth at the Winter Olympics 2018, scheduled to be held in the same city in South Korea where he won his medals.
“Skating is my life and passion. This sport has given me whatever I have today. So I have not lost hope yet. I am sure if I reach there (the 2018 Winter Olympics), I will win a medal,” Rajkumar says, smiling.
“Maybe life will change then.”