Mariyappan Thangavelu was awarded the prestigious Arjuna Award from President Ram Nath Kovind on Tuesday
Young athlete won millions of hearts in India after bringing home gold from Rio
Despite his sporting success, he says he urgently needs a job to help his family
He said he had been in talks with the Tamil Nadu government on possible roles but so far nothing has materialised.
Mariyappan Thangavelu stood in a corner, away from the media glare, at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Shortly after receiving the Arjuna Award from President Ram Nath Kovind on Tuesday, it was time for the athletes to spend time with family and friends.
Not for Mariyappan, as he parked himself in a corner of the huge hall with another Arjuna awardee, Arokia Rajiv.
Rajiv had come with his family, which lives in Trichy, a big town in Tamil Nadu. Mariyappan did not mind being alone.
‘I came straight from the training camp in Bengaluru and decided not to bring in my family members,’ he told Mail Today.
Not the type who would talk much, Mariyappan, who won gold medal in the high jump event of the Rio Paralympics last year, soaked up the atmosphere.
Having won Rs 5 lakh (£6k) as prize money from the government for the Arjuna Award, his thoughts were focused on his family.
Till last year, his mother was selling vegetables in a small town near Salem, Tamil Nadu. The champion, who won the hearts of millions last September by winning the high jump gold in Rio, decided enough was enough.
He got prize money from various quarters, almost Rs 3 crore. With that, he managed to create a good fixed deposit. Before that, he had bought his mother five acres land, so that she could grow rice and earn a living, despite the water shortage in Tamil Nadu.
Yet, Mariyappan was feeling bad he had no job. ‘I am ready to do any desk job in the Tamil Nadu government. We met both the chief ministers and nothing has happened,’ said Mariyappan.
Given the political uncertainty in Tamil Nadu, Mariyappan had met Paneerselvam, who was the caretaker chief minister when J.Jayalalithaa was in hospital.
‘We also met chief minister Palaniswamy Sir but nothing has happened,’ said a wistful Mariyappan.
Unlike other athletes who can enjoy the riches in life and party hard, Mariyappan has to stay focused. He needs a permanent job as that will take care of his mother and two younger brothers at home. ‘One brother has finished graduation and is unemployed. My youngest brother is pursuing a law course,’ said Mariyappan, whose best jump of 1.89 metres in the Rio Paralympics won him gold.
At the age of five, the champion’s right foot was damaged as a heavy vehicle ran over his leg. Since then, he has pursued sport with passion and coach Satyanarayana has been helping him. For those who missed Mariyappan’s golden jump last year, the video is still a thrill to watch. Many athletes lose interest in sport or lose focus after winning a medal as big as gold on the big stage. Yet, Mariyappan says nothing distracts him. ‘I am training hard, next year we have the Asian Games in Jakarta. I will fly back to Bengaluru soon,’ he said.
So what after the Asian Games? ‘I want to win gold in Tokyo in 2020 with a record to boot,’ he says.
At a time when several Indian athletes have got distracted with money, awards, rich leagues and so on, the lithe boy from Salem is looking ahead at next competitions with seriousness.
He weighs just 43 kg, which is a huge advantage. He hops fast on one leg, about six steps. There is a quick shuffle in the last few steps where he uses the other foot, digs himself into the track and does the Flosbury flop.
In Rio, he executed this in a clean manner and the commentators around the world were thrilled by his innovative technique.
But on Tuesday, the loudest cheer and clapping at the Durbar Hall was for Mariyappan as he collected the award from President Kovind.
Did he look a bit lost? Yes, because, on this day, Mariyappan’s coach Satyanarayana was also supposed to have received the Dronacharya award but it was pulled due to complaints about him received by the ministry.
To be sure, Mariyappan, by virtue of his golden effort, could have actually been given even the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. He has got Rs 5 lakh for the Arjuna Award. But what he really needs is a permanent government job in Tamil Nadu.