India at the World Transplant Games: A story of hard-earned success

Harpreet Kaur Lamba | Updated on September 06, 2019

Jump to a conclusion: Ankita Shrivastava, who donated a large part of her liver to her mother, won two gold medals in track and field events   -  BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A team of 14 organ transplant recipients and donors wins 4 gold and 3 silver medals at the recently concluded World Transplant Games at the UK. And in doing so, they break several myths about organ donation

Two weeks ago, the Tricolour fluttered proudly in Newcastle, UK, as 14 men and women represented India at the little-known World Transplant Games (WTG). Their triumph — the team returned home with four gold and three silver medals — signified bravery and a battle against odds. Every two years, the International Olympic Committee-recognised event brings together tissue and organ transplant recipients and donors from across the world. The biennial games were first held in 1978, in Portsmouth, also in the UK; it had less than 100 participants from only five countries. The 2019 edition, held from August 17 to 23, saw more than 2,237 athletes from 60 nations in action. Some of the categories in the tournament are swimming, athletics, cycling, archery, golf, badminton, squash and table tennis.

So what’s unique about this bunch? Picture this. The manager of team India, Reena Raju (38), has had two heart transplants and played a crucial part in putting the contingent together. While some participants were lucky in terms of finding sponsors, most of the others had to fund themselves.

Twin gold medallist Ankita Shrivastava donated a large part of her liver to her ailing mother in 2014 only to see her die a few months later. All of 21 at the time, Shrivastava did not let the tragedy overwhelm her. She now runs an animation business besides devoting time to sports. At Newcastle, she won golds in long jump and ball throw and also picked up a silver in the 100-m race.

“I had not seen anything of this magnitude before,” says the 26-year-old who lives in Bhopal. “I was overwhelmed on day one. I saw contestants from other countries and thought to myself that ‘they are too well built and well trained. How could I compete with them?’”

Shrivastava kept coaxing herself to not lose confidence. “My first event was the 100-m race, in which I finished second. Next day, at the long jump, I was determined to beat the same athlete who had won the gold the previous day. It was a special feeling,” she says.

Bengaluru-based neurosurgeon, Dr Arjun Srivatsa, whose younger brother Anil donated him a kidney in 2015, won a gold in golf. The win became twice as special when Anil bagged a gold in ball throwing in the donor category. Anil says the “victory underlined their fight and will to succeed” and adds that he feels proud to see his brother do well after the transplant.

Another participant was 41-year-old Balveer Singh, who underwent a kidney transplant a few years ago. Singh is the only Indian to have won golds in badminton at the 2015 and 2017 Games, and continued his winning spree by notching up a silver this time. Balveer fought financial troubles and a tough medical condition — he spends more than ₹6,000 per month on his medicines — to send out a strong message. “There is a perception that a person is [physically] weak once he or she goes through a transplant. I want to break that myth,” he says.

The other medals came from squash player Digvijay Singh Gujral, a kidney recipient from Madhya Pradesh. The contingent also had a couple — Praveen Kumar Rattan and Roopa Arora from Chandigarh. Arora had donated 65 per cent of her liver to her husband in 2011 and the duo took part in athletics.

Apart from meeting physical challenges, the team also struggled with the lack of funds and a proper federation to back them up. Says manager Raju, “When I first took part in the 2017 WTG [in Spain], there were just three participants from India. My fellow athletes could not get visas on time, and I was the only Indian at the opening ceremony among a sea of athletes from all over the world. That propelled me to do something and I did my best to put together a bigger team for 2019.”

She adds that she hopes to see more support and encouragement for the athletes in light of the team’s performance this year. It may not be enough to end official apathy but Raju, with the help of her NGO, Light A Life, plans to fight for acceptance and visibility. “WTG is a holistic experience — it is not just a competition. It honours organ donors and pushes recipients to test their limits in fitness,” says Raju.

While sports is about breaking physical and mental barriers, the philosophy of those participate in the WTG also includes spreading awareness about organ donation and transplantation. Bhopal girl Shrivastava says, “We need more organ donors in the country. It is a noble cause that can save many lives. Our WTG effort is a small step in that direction.”

Harpreet Kaur Lamba is a Delhi-based sports writer

Published on September 06, 2019

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