50 meters: The Precise Distance to Recovery, Resilience and Redemption

Manya Pandey SYBSc

The greatest story of hope in Indian sporting history is not the victories of 1983 or 2011 at the Cricket World Cups, it’s the story of a war hero who survived nine bullet wounds to win India’s first gold medal at the Paralympics. This tale most certainly deserves more appreciation and recognition than it is accorded with.

In 1972, at the Summer Paralympics in Heidelberg, Germany, the world record for the 50-meter freestyle swimming lap was just under 40 seconds. Until Murlikant Petkar, from Peth Islampur located in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, surpassed everyone and set a new world record! 

However, Murli never started off swimming to bag the gold one day; for him, it was more about his survival and redemption.

His gig kicked off right smack in the middle of the Boys Battalion, a gritty, no-nonsense playground within the sprawling canvas of the Indian Army. The ladder to infamy, one scarred rung at a time, beckoned him to the sordid battlegrounds of Pakistan, circa 1965.

Photo Credit: File photo of Murlikant Petkar at the peak of his career ⒸMurlikantPetkar.com

A craftsman-rank soldier in the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME), he was out for tea in the afternoon when a whistle was blown to indicate an aerial attack. Caught in the crossfire of this harrowing aerial assault, he emerged from the crucible of conflict bearing the brutal imprints of war. Multiple bullet wounds bore witness to his ordeal, and, as if the cruel hand of destiny were not satisfied, an army vehicle delivered a final, crushing blow to his lower spine rendering his legs almost useless.

But long before his army stint, he was an enthusiastic participant in many sports while specialising in boxing. Once the injury marked his life, he had to let go of his mastered passion and switch to swimming for rehabilitation purposes. Aceing whatever challenges life threw at him, Petkar used all available resources to train in the sport and attain glory through it.

Unlike as it is now, in 1972, the sports infrastructure for people with disabilities was almost non-existent. “There was not much support and encouragement for the disabled in the country in those days,” says Petkar.

When he says so, there is no disaffection and regret, only a tinge of resignation as the society did not spare much thought to the needs of the disabled. For Murli, it was the veterans sports club,  his years of training, and his teammates that got him through the system.

In the 1972 Paralympic Games, he set a world record in the 50 m freestyle swimming event, at 37.33 seconds. In the same games, he participated in javelin throw, and precision javelin throw. He was a finalist in all three events.

He went on to play in international championships like the Stoke Mandeville International Paraplegic Meets held in England where he consistently outdid his 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. At the end of his glorious career, he settled with a job at TELCO, without the shine or the recognition he truly deserved for his resilience. His efforts were finally recognised in 2018 when he was awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India.

Recently, the Indian Army signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) to bring specially-abled soldiers into elite sports. This is a great move to bolster Paralympic sport in the country, with the Army taking on the responsibility of rehabilitating and helping differently-abled soldiers injured on the battlefield, train for the Paralympics.

From athletes not receiving funds for team uniforms to giving the Paralympic Committee of India ‘Priority’ category for financial assistance by the Government, we have come a long way

Since the first Paralympics held in 1960 in Rome, the world and especially India has made leaps and bounds in expanding access for specially-abled sportspersons. For instance, in a remarkable stride, every National SAI Stadium and training centre has undergone a transformation, becoming a haven of differently-abled friendliness. But the commitment to accessibility and inclusivity shouldn’t end here. It should extend to all corners of the sporting landscape.

Stories like that of Padmashri Murlikant Petkar are a testament to the indomitable spirit of athletes who defy limitations daily. But, this battle is not for them to fight alone. Together, we break barriers, forging an inclusive path towards a brighter sporting future. Reporting from the frontlines of inclusivity,
An ever-inspired student.

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