The magic of movement at the Paralympics: Sporting Life by Rudraneil Sengupta

If you have never seen Markus Rehm jump, watch him now. Try to still your heart as he goes airborne at the end of his blistering sprint. For a microsecond when he takes off, he seems to hang in the air, like gravity is nothing. Then he sails across the sandpit, looking like he might clear it altogether.

Rehm won gold at the Tokyo Paralympics on September 1, in the T64 category (athletes with single below-the-knee amputation who compete in running or jumping using a prosthesis), but that he would do so was a foregone conclusion.

The 33-year-old German, who lost his leg in a wakeboarding accident at the age of 14, set the world record in his category this year, with an 8.62m jump that would have won him the gold at every able-bodied Olympics since 1992.

Rehm is the best long-jumper in the world.

He has tried and failed to be part of the able-bodied Olympics twice. The authorities won’t let him. Apparently, his prosthetic leg “gives him an unfair advantage”.

Meanwhile, among India’s many moments of triumph at the Paralympics was Sumit Antil’s winning throw. The 23-year-old Haryanvi became the second Indian javelin thrower to light up the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo in the space of a month.

He won gold in the F64 (again, athletes with a single-leg prosthesis; F stands for field, T for track) event, smashing through the F64 world record three times in six throws.

Earlier this year, Antil competed at an able-bodied meet with Neeraj Chopra, who won a historic gold at the Olympics in August. Antil has said he hopes to keep throwing against Chopra. Though there is a massive gulf between the distances the two can get on the spear (Antil’s world record is 68.55m, Chopra’s best is 88.07m), I’d be willing to bet that gap can be narrowed.

Chopra has been throwing for over a decade and has been coached by some of the best minds in the world to become one of the most technical throwers in the game right now. Look at him throw: the fast, smooth run-up, the massive stretch he gets without losing power when he lands his lead leg, the hyper-extension of his shoulder, the rotational strength in his trunk, the fact that the javelin stays perfectly aligned, almost touching his face, the entire time, and the timing of his release.

In comparison, Antil is a novice who only picked up the javelin in 2017, two years after his left leg was amputated below the knee following a road accident, leaving his dreams of becoming a wrestler and armyman in tatters.

You can see his inexperience in his throws, where the power comes almost entirely from his Hulk-like shoulders and arms. With a few more years of intense training, backed by the kind of pedagogy and sports science that Chopra has access to, who knows how far Antil could go?

Prosthesis technology has come such a long way that if you don’t see Antil’s artificial limb, going just by his run-up and throwing action, you can’t tell that he does not have the use of two legs. It helps that the most advanced prosthetics now allow for movement that’s incredibly close to the way the body naturally moves and absorbs or dissipates force.

But as to the argument that an artificial limb may give a para-athlete an advantage over an able-bodied one, there is no conclusive evidence to support it.

Either way, here’s to Antil and Rehm, and the electrifying experience of watching them smash through the boundaries of what we think the human body can do.

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