Para athlete Dhama searches for guiding hand

- August 31, 2023

The Arjuna Award winner and 2014 Asian Para Games medallist is struggling to fund exposure for his guide runner, an integral part of visual handicap runner

GEARING UP: Ankur Dhama (right) and guide runner Dharmendra Gurjar practice at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium ahead of next month’s Asian Para Games. He pays one-fourth of his salary to his guide runner besides the lodging

Delhi’s international visual handicap middle-and-long distance runner Ankur Dhama is facing financial crunch ahead of the Asian Para Games to be held from October 22 to 28 in Hangzhou, China. 

The 29-year-old Arjuna Awardee in para-athletics will compete in two track events –1500m and 5000m in the competition. 

In the build-up to the continental competition in China that offers a platform to qualify for the Paris Paralympic Games, Dhama doesn’t have enough resources to maximise his potential. 

“I don’t have adequate funds for international exposure, and for my guide runner,” reveals Dhama after one of his practice sessions. 

“It’s mentally taxing to arrange funds.”

Dhama has been working with Sports Authority of India (SAI) as an athletics coach since 2018. Though he doesn’t have to discharge the responsibility of coaching as long as he is an active athlete, his monthly salary (Rs 60,000) isn’t enough to fuel his passion for competitive sports. 

He spends roughly Rs 15,000 per month, exclusive of lodging, on his guide runner Dharmendra Gurjar from Rajasthan. He has to spend a further Rs 15,000 to 20,000 on training, diet and sports kit. He also has to take care of his parents.     

“My guide runner doesn’t have international exposure. With better international experience he will be able to handle challenging situations with ease in major competitions,” the Arjuna awardee said.

Being a visual handicap runner, Dhama can’t practice without a guide runner. Moreover, a guide runner has to be faster than the athlete for better results. 

“I’ve to take care of the mental and physical well-being of my guide runner as well. Otherwise, why would someone take me out for practice?” asked Dhama.

Despite the odds, he is determined to do something phenomenal in the field of sports before hanging his spikes. 

Hot and humid conditions during monsoon season in the Capital might shake determination of the sternest of the distance runners. But the hostile weather condition seemingly doesn’t stop Dhama and his teenage guide runner from churning out miles after miles at New Delhi’s iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

“My goal this year is to qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games,” Dhama said of his future plans.  

Lack of financial resources

Due to lack of financial resources, Dhama’s build-up to the Asian Para Games is far from ideal. According to the 2014 Para Asiad medallist, he should be competing in at least one quality competition every three months to gain valuable experience. 

“Competition will enable me and my guide to match the pace during races as competitors often jostle for space,” he said 

Dhama has competed in two domestic races, so far. He has a private sponsor but the annual budget is Rs 4 lakh. 

“The sponsors pay for traveling expenses and other day-to-day needs for me and my guide. But that budget is not good enough for international exposure,” he said.

In February, he was supposed to go for an international event in Sharjah. The expenditure for two people was roughly Rs 2 lakh. The plan was postponed as Dhama’s guide wasn’t granted a visa for the competition.  

According to Dhama, a weekly visit to physio and masseur is also part of the training. “It is expensive and I have to plan accordingly,” he added.

Paralympic Games

Dhama’s debut at the 2016 Paralympic Olympic Games in Brazil wasn’t successful. He tripped in the first lap of 1500m qualification and was out of the medal contention. 

He couldn’t prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games due to health issues and Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It was scary during Covid-19 pandemic to go out and practice with a guide runner,” added Dhama. 

A culmination of niggles and Covid-19 pandemic hit the aspiring para athlete from Delhi hard. His performance dipped in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. And, he had to start all over again from scratch.

“Injuries are part and parcel of competitive sports,” he said during a break from gym session. “I’ve managed to stay healthy this season and I’m happy to qualify for the Hangzhou Asian Para Games.”

LAUREL: Ankur Dhama won the Arjuna Award in 2018 for his performances in international events

That (performances in 2021 and 2022) is past, said Dhama. 

“There have been both good and bad things. But I take it in a positive way,” he added.

Searching for a good guide runner is a challenge visual handicap athletes have to face. “The guide runner has to be faster than me. Otherwise, he will not be able to match my pace or push me hard during the race,” the international para-athlete said.

Asian Para Games

The 2022 Hangzhou Para Asian Games will be Dhama’s third in a row. He first competed at the 2014 Para Asian Games and was successful in winning one silver (800m) and two bronze medals (1500m and 5000m) in track races. The 2018 Para Asian Games turned out to be challenging as he was nursing a stress fracture in shin. Despite niggle he finished fourth in 1500m and pulled out of 5000m race half way through due to intense pain in the shin.

He is determined to make a big impact this time in China. “The practice has been on expected lines,” he added. 

Since Dhama’s guide runner doesn’t have international experience of leading a visual handicap runner, he often watches video clips to update himself to get familiar with the situation during major international para races. “I’m mentally prepared to give my best during the Asian Para Games in China,” Gurjar said.

In July during the national para selection trials for Asian Para Games, Dhama clocked 17 minutes dead for the 5000m and 4 minutes and 30 seconds for the 1500m race. 

Dhama’s main goal this October in China will be podium finish in both the races he has entered. “Asian Games will be one good platform to qualify for the Paris Paralympic Games,” he added.

According to Dhama there should be a policy in place to financially support the guide runners. 

“Athletes and coaches get financial rewards after winning medals at major international events, including the Paralympic Games. But guide runners are not entitled for any rewards,” Dhama added. “If a policy for financial incentive to guide runners is made, it will encourage more visually impaired runners to take up sports.”