While celebrating Tokyo stars, remember Murlikant Petkar, first Indian to win Paralympic gold in 1972

As the country applauds Neeraj Chopra, the first Indian to win a gold medal in athletics at the Olympics, spare a thought for the first Indian to win a gold medal in the Paralympic Games.

Murlikant Petkar, who suffered debilitating injuries in an aerial attack during the 1965 war with Pakistan and was rendered paraplegic, bagged the first gold medal for India in the Paralympics — at the 1972 Games at Heidelberg, Germany. That was well before 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medallist in shooting Abhinav Bindra or for that matter Devendra Jhajharia — who won gold in the javelin throw at 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Petkar won gold in 50m freestyle 3 swimming in the then world record time of 37.33 seconds. He started off with a world record time of 38.19 secs.

While the nation celebrates the exploits of its stars at the Tokyo Olympics, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) featured Petkar, who also participated in table tennis in the 1968 Paralympic Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, on its website in its build-up to the Tokyo Paralympics, to be held from August 24 to September 5.

A soldier of the craftsman rank in the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME), Petkar was visiting Jammu and Kashmir when his army camp came under aerial attack from Pakistani troops.

“I was out for tea in the afternoon when a whistle was blown to indicate an aerial attack. I tried to rush back to my room but the firing had already started,” Petkar, who received multiple bullet injuries and was also run over by an army vehicle in the chaos, told the IPC.

Rendered disabled for life, he was advised by a physiotherapist at INHS Asvini, the Navy hospital in Mumbai, to take up sports as part of his rehabilitation. Petkar tried his hand at table tennis, athletics and swimming and represented the country in all three.

Born on November 1, 1947, at Peth Islampur in Sangli district of Maharashtra, Petkar’s life changed when he started participating in swimming. He recalls his events in the 1972 Games where he participated in Men’s Slalom 3, Men’s Shot Put 3, Men’s Javelin 3, Men’s Precision Javelin Open besides 50m freestyle swimming. Petkar, who was a boxer before he became disabled, reached the finals of all his events, winning gold in 50m freestyle swimming.

“I was always confident of my abilities and gave my best in the first race itself and set a world record. The final was quite tough. Normally I am not bothered about the lane I swim (in) and set the world record from the first lane. But for the final, I wanted (in) the middle lanes (3rd or 4th) and I got the third. I thought it was a good omen and gave it my best shot,” he said.

But things were not easy for Petkar as he had to struggle for funding and could not participate in any more Paralympic Games though he was in top form and could have won more medals.

Petkar had to depend on several people for participating in international events. One of those who helped him realise his dream was former India cricket captain Vijay Merchant. “Vijay Merchant was heading an NGO that supported disabled persons and his organisation paid for my tickets,” he told the IPC.

“There was not much support for disabled people those days but we continued to work hard and participated in events as we wanted to prove that we were capable of representing the country and winning medals,” says Petkar, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2018.

In a career spanning nearly two decades, Petkar won laurels for the country at events like the Stoke Mandeville International Paraplegic Meets held in England where he consistently outdid his own records and won the General Championship Cup for five consecutive years (1969-73); the 3rd Commonwealth Paraplegic Games held at Edinburgh, Scotland, where he bagged gold in 50m freestyle swimming, silver in javelin throw and bronze in shot put and the International FESPIC Games in Hong Kong in 1982 where he created another world record in 50m swimming.

Now 72, Petkar lives in Pune, spending a quiet life of a retired senior citizen.

As another edition of the Paralympic Games approaches, Petkar’s mind will be filled with memories of the struggles he faced to raise funds for representing the country, his exploits at the 1972 Games, and the welcome he received on arrival in New Delhi with the gold medal — just like the Tokyo Olympic Games medallists are receiving while Petkar lives in anonymity.