Tokyo Paralympics: Pramod Bhagat wins historic badminton gold

Pramod Bhagat celebrates after winning gold in the badminton men's singles SL3 category at the Tokyo Paralympics. Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Four-time world champion Pramod Bhagat scripted history by becoming the first Indian ever to win a badminton gold at the Paralympics at the Tokyo 2020 Games on Saturday. Top seed Bhagat defeated Great Britain's Daniel Bethell, the second seed, 21-14, 21-17 in the final of the men's singles SL3 category.

Bhagat was utterly dominant through the week, winning all his four matches and only dropping one game, against compatriot Manoj Sarkar in his opening match, on the way to the gold medal.

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Sarkar won bronze in the same event after defeating Japan's Daisuke Fujihara 22-20, 21-13 in the bronze medal match. Ranked 3rd in the SL 3 category in the world rankings, Sarkar is a multiple medalist at the Para Badminton World Championships and Asian Games.

This is the first time that badminton is being played at the Paralympics. Bhagat will have a chance to add to his medal tally again on Sunday, when he pairs up with Palak Kohli in the mixed doubles SL3-SU5 bronze medal match against Japan's Fujihara and Akiko Sugino.

"This is very special to me, it's my dream come true. Bethell really pushed me but I just kept my calm and played to my strengths," Bhagat said after the match.

"I would like to dedicate this to my parents and to everyone who has supported me throughout. I'm glad I could make India proud." Bhagat said he had a strategy in place for his rival.

"I played the same opponent in Japan two years ago and I lost. That was a learning opportunity for me. Today it was the same stadium and the same environment, and I devised a strategy to win. I was very determined."

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

India's four golds are easily their most in a single edition of the Paralympics. They had previously won four golds across 11 editions that they participated in from 1968 to 2016.

Officially, India's medals tally at the Tokyo Paralympics now stands at 17 medals, including four golds, seven silvers and six bronzes. Their previous best was four medals at the Stoke Mandeville and New York Paralympics in 1984 and Rio Paralympics in 2016.

Bhagat and Bethell were close in the initial exchanges before Bhagat used his superior experience and nous to pull ahead. He then maintained a comfortable lead throughout the opening game. The going was more difficult for Bhagat in the second game as he trailed 4-12 at one stage before staging a remarkable recovery to draw level and eventually pull ahead.

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

Bhagat, born in the small town of Attabira in Odisha, was always a dreamer. "I was the quintessential honhaar baccha (dedicated child)," he had told ESPN earlier this year. "I always aspired to do my best, and I used to pick up skills pretty quickly. It was almost as if I had an in-built sportsman inside me."

Affected by polio at the age of five, he developed a defect in his left leg. However, not once did that stop him from pursuing his love for sport.

As a child, he loved cricket and was a proud opening batsman in local tournaments. In his teens though, Bhagat developed a new-found liking for badminton. "It was not very popular back in the early 2000s. But I was fascinated by it." As a 14-year-old, Bhagat would finish his studies to quickly go to a nearby playground to watch his school seniors play in makeshift outdoor courts. "When everyone would watch TV in the evenings, I would go and watch badminton," he had said

His dedication reaped rewards as he soon started training with them. "I had to wait a bit because I was a junior and was disabled, but once I started, everyone was impressed with my progress," he had said. "I even became a district champion. That's how I decided to play it professionally."

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

The 33-year-old Bhagat, the current World No. 1, earlier secured a 21-11, 21-16 win over Japan's Fujihara in the first men's singles SL3 class semifinal, which lasted 36 minutes.

With only half of the court being used in SL3 classification, which is for persons with standing/lower limb impairment, Bhagat and Fujihara engaged in a lot of long rallies and the Indian came up on top most of the time. Bhagat, the top seed, trailed 2-4 early in the opening game but a series of overhead drops helped him claw back. The duo were 8-8 before the Indian entered the interval at 11-8.

After the break, he continued his good run and eventually pocketed the opening game with six straight points. It was a Bhagat show in the second game as well as the Indian led all the way to prevail.

"It was a great game against Fujihara, he pushed me with some great shots. But I had a plan and I executed it very well. I am happy I have reached my maiden Paralympic finals but the work is not done yet," said Bhagat after his match.

In the other men's singles SL3 semifinal, Sarkar couldn't get into any sort of rhythm against second-seeded Bethell, going down 8-21, 10-21.