Pramod Bhagat wins historic badminton gold

Four-time world champion Pramod Bhagat made history by becoming the first Indian ever to win badminton gold at the Paralympics at the Tokyo 2020 games on Saturday. Top seed Bhagat defeated second seed Daniel Bethell of Britain 21-14, 21-17 in the final of the Men’s Singles SL3 category.

Bhagat was absolutely dominant all week, winning all of his four matches and losing just one match, to compatriot Manoj Sarkar in his opening match, en route to the gold medal.

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Sarkar won bronze in the same event after defeating Japan’s Daisuke Fujihara in the bronze medal match 22-20, 21-13. World No. 3 in the SL 3 category, Sarkar is a multiple medalist at Para Badminton World Championships and Asian Games.

This is the first time badminton has been played in the Paralympics. Bhagat will have another chance to add to his medal tally on Sunday when he joins Palak Kohli for the bronze medal against Japan’s Fujihara and Akiko Sugino in mixed doubles SL3-SU5.

“This is very special for me, it’s my dream come true. Bethell really pushed me but I just stayed calm and played to my strengths,” said Bhagat after the game.

“I would like to dedicate this to my parents and everyone who has supported me throughout this time. I’m glad I could make India proud.” Bhagat said he had a strategy for his rival.

“I played the same opponents in Japan two years ago and lost. That was a learning opportunity for me. Today it was the same stadium and environment and I made a strategy to win. I was very determined.”

Bhagat’s medal is India’s fourth gold at this Paralympic Games after Avani Lekhara in the women’s 10m air rifle standing SH1 event, Sumit Antil in the men’s javelin in the F64 category and Manish Narwal in the 50m pistol mixed SH1 competition today.

India’s four gold medals are by far the most in a single edition of the Paralympics. They had previously won four gold medals in 11 editions they competed in from 1968 to 2016.

Officially, India’s medal tally at the Tokyo Paralympics now stands at 17 medals, including four gold, seven silver and six bronze medals. Her previous bests were four medals at the 1984 Stoke Mandeville and New York Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

Bhagat and Bethell were close on initial exchanges before Bhagat used his superior experience and ingenuity to advance. He then maintained a comfortable lead throughout the opening game. In the second game it was more difficult for Bhagat as he was 4-12 down at one point before making a remarkable recovery to equalize and eventually take the lead.

Bhagat had won two gold medals in the SL3 men’s singles and doubles categories at the 2019 BWF Para World Championships and is one of the most decorated players in the SL3 category.

Born in the small town of Attabira in Odisha, Bhagat has always been a dreamer. “I was the bottom line Honhaar Baccha (dedicated kid),” he had told ESPN earlier this year. “I’ve always strived to do my best and I picked up skills pretty quickly. It was almost like I had a built-in athlete.”

Affected by polio at the age of five, he developed a defect in his left leg. However, that never stopped him from pursuing his love of sport.

As a child he loved cricket and was the proud opening batsman at local tournaments. However, as a teenager, Bhagat developed a newfound love for badminton. “It wasn’t very popular in the early 2000s. But it fascinated me.” At the age of 14, Bhagat finished his studies to quickly go to a nearby playground and watch his graduate students play on makeshift outdoor courts. “When everyone was watching TV at night, I would go and watch badminton,” he had said

His dedication was rewarded when he soon began training with them. “I had to wait a bit because I was a junior and had a disability, but once I started everyone was impressed with my progress,” he had said. “I even became district champion. So I decided to play it professionally.”

He was then introduced to his first coach, SP Das, who he credits with shaping him into a professional para-athlete. “He was my first mentor. I used to play outdoors while professionally it was an indoor sport. He was the one who helped me make that transition and eventually become an international player.”

The 33-year-old Bhagat, who is currently world No. 1, previously secured a 21-11, 21-16 win over Japan’s Fujihara in the first semi-final of the SL3 class in men’s singles, which lasted 36 minutes.

With only half the pitch used in the SL3 classification, which is for those with standing/lower limb impairments, Bhagat and Fujihara were involved in many long rallies and the Indian came out on top most of the time. Bhagat, the top-seeker, was 2-4 down early in the opening game but a series of overhead drops helped him fight back. The duo was 8-8 before the Indian went into the break at 11-8.

He continued his good run after the break, eventually bagging the opening game with six straight points. It was a bhagat show in the second game and the Indian led to victory.

“It was a great game against Fujihara, he pushed me with some great shots. But I had a plan and executed it very well. I’m happy to have reached my first Paralympic final, but the work is not done,” Bhagat said after his game.

In the SL3 semifinals of the other men’s singles, Sarkar couldn’t find a rhythm against second-placed Bethell, falling 8-21, 10-21.

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