Para Nationals: Poor wheelchair access, no testing, venue complications mar event

Athletes huddle under the shade of the tented call area ahead of their competition at the Kanteerava stadium, Bengaluru. Anirudh Menon

The 19th National Para Athletics Championships, scheduled for March 24-27, were shifted from Chennai to Bengaluru at literally the last minute - four days before the event was due to start. Some athletes were on trains en route to Chennai when they heard the news. The switch in host city required massive logistical changes - in the middle of a pandemic. And all this in a tournament for those with physical disabilities. Here's what the event was like on Days 2 and 3.

But before that, Day 1.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) pulls up the organisers, the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), for COVID-19 guideline violations. The PCI say the overcrowding was a temporary issue -- a result of the initial rush of participants as they crowded the entrance seeking information, confirming their registrations (for which they had prepaid Rs. 4000 each), obtaining bibs and numbers, and trying to understand the schedule (events are split between the Kanteerava and the Karnataka Dept. of Youth Empowerment and Sports Stadium in Vidyanagar, 25.5 km away and with limited public-transport access).

In the evening, a video circulates of a men's shot put event being conducted at the Kanteerava with the aid of mobile flashlights and a few car headlights.

Day 2: Thursday, March 25

On Wednesday, SAI had also pointed out that the Kanteerava was not wheelchair-friendly. Of the main gates that provide entry to the ground, only one was even semi wheelchair-friendly -- thanks to a large piece of wood that had been laid across the uneven surface.

With the stadium under renovation, there are uneven surfaces, debris, and construction material everywhere. This is the venue for all the short throws; i.e. all the throwing events for athletes who are wheelchair users. "We have to be really careful moving around the stadium," an athlete says. "There are so many things lying around, and the ramps are not easy to use." The stadium itself is inundated with flex banners, in colour and carrying the faces of the organising committee members (both PCI office bearers and those of the presidents of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu state associations). By a rough estimate, there were more than 40 of these medium-sized banners around the place.

There were, again approximately, four A4-sized sheets of paper stuck on two pillars to show where the wheelchair-friendly washrooms were.

There are no sanitisation stations visible at the stadium premises. Athletes are huddled together under the small tents that served as the call area ahead of their events. Others are scattered wherever they can find some shade -- under trees, on the side of the road outside the stadium where the structure provided cover from the sun.

Social distancing is loosely followed.

While PCI president Deepa Malik insists they had asked athletes to bring with them certificates showing they had tested negative for COVID-19, many athletes say they hadn't been told of this. They also say that there is no provision for testing at the venue. Athletes arrive, compete, win, and return -- all without a single test taken.

The PCI maintains that following COVID protocols is an individual's responsibility.

Day 3: Friday, March 26

The shot put fiasco from Wednesday has been reported widely. It's the headline-grabber. On Thursday, Malik had said that it had been done "on the insistence of the athletes" as they had events scheduled in the other venue the next day, and that "the athletes in [Tuesday night's] events were not in the visually-impaired category. They were actually in the least disabled category. They are adults who made a choice to compete. I don't think the light was insufficient." On Friday, she tells journalists that "on reviewing the complete video, we have decided to conduct the event again."

Meanwhile, the Vidyanagar Stadium is a little more disability-friendly. There is continuous construction happening in the background, but the track and field areas are free of debris and obstructions. Of the two gates into the competition area, one is a level surface, the other was not. The only signages clearly visible are the flex banners (colour, faces, remember?) and boards in Kannada (this is, after all, the premises for the state government's youth sports hostel).

Announcements for the shuttles to Kanteerava ring out at regular intervals.

Ravi Kumar -- a sprinter from UP, who had travelled to Chennai from Lucknow via train, and then boarded another to Bengaluru and was scheduled to take the same route back -- says he's just happy the event took place after two years of nothing.

Quite a few present echo these sentiments.


For their part, the PCI said that it was the first time such large numbers of athletes had been provided with accommodation, food and intra-city transport. They also said that they were listening to all complaints and withholding results till such time as the serious ones were investigated. And that although prize distribution ceremonies couldn't take place, certificates would be given. In addition, the PCI said they rose to the challenge of a last-minute shift to ensure the meet took place for the sake of the athletes.

This was important for those for whom athletics provides the basis of their employment and education. There had been no Nationals for two years. A third year of nothing would have been a body blow. Another fact was that the PCI's budget for this financial year would have lapsed -- without spend being incurred, affecting next year's budget -- if they had cancelled.

What's beyond debate, though, is that the rescheduling led to real problems. The sudden change threw carefully-planned budgets and travel schedules into a mess. Several athletes had a harrowing time managing the last-minute transit from Chennai to Bengaluru with no official assistance. The athletes we spoke to said there was very little communication with them before they arrived. One of the main venues selected in Bengaluru was severely underprepared to meet the unique challenges posed by the meet. And at the end of it all, athletes with increased vulnerabilities were placed in a risky environment, pandemic-wise.

These are basic amenities, especially for disabled athletes, even more so in the midst of a pandemic, that should have been taken care of by the federation.