Can an Indian maker produce the perfect prosthetic kit for Pramod Bhagat, the Para Olympian badminton gold medalist?

Pramod Bhagat wants to return to Japan – where in his finest hour, he won the Paralympics gold in the SL3 category at Tokyo Games. Not to relive that triumph, but to look ahead. In pursuit of perfection, Bhagat is on the hunt for the ideal prosthetic – fully carbon fiber – after years of struggling and making do with partially workable ones.

It’s not a financial struggle for him now – though it tends to be for many others – for many organisations and the government fund him. But this has been a continuing struggle to get technology to bend his way literally for the polio afflicted foot. His ankle supporters currently are a mix of plastic and carbon fiber. What he needs is a fully carbon fiber contraption, and the man who loves tinkering and experimenting with equipment is on a quest to get it just right. His ambition is to go on till 2024 and beyond to 2028, and he reckons he’ll keep improving on the left leg prosthetic until it starts feeling like a part of him, while he goes about defending his gold medal.

Technology once meant shoes, recalls Bhagat of a time when coming from a small town in Orissa, he started lacing up instead of playing bare feet. He never knew prosthetics existed even, back in the day, he says.

He got his first medical reference for Olatpur in Orissa, which was known to tend to accident victims and offer them artificial legs. But they were limited in their efficiency and comfort. There were what he calls side effects: too tight at times, it would prove abrasive on the skin and lead to swellings. The bone growth too in his case was inconsistent, so a perfect fit was difficult at most times.

Earlier, the prosthetics could also lead to back aches and ankle pain, and shift the load there, leading to injuries.

Bhagat now uses prosthetics kitted out from manufacturers around the world, for his left leg which is affected by polio. The prosthetics are made of carbon fiber partly, and it helps give stability to his leg and its lightness helps him move better. Earlier he would use different materials which slowed him down – so whilst he could train only a couple of hours, but now he could go on to 8 full hours of training. It won him the Paralympics he states.

Still, the process is long and a lot of trial and error. At the end of it the movement needs to be good and the body stable, and he needs to play with a free mind. ‘Just like disability is a part of my life, I need the perfect prosthetic to become a part of my life too. If it’s good looking, all the more perfect,’ he laughs.

Olatpur gave him an option. But the India make wasn’t upto highest standards on comfort. He hopes that production in India improves for prosthetics. Most of his prosthetics come from Japan or when he visits there to play. The ones which are made in India are good, but they are not able to finish like the ones you get abroad, he says. Over the years he has been working with certain makers to produce it in India but he has not been very happy with the results.

Someone referred him to Ottobock, a German company that makes prosthetics, and he has since switched to those, though Japan offers him the further perfect choice of an all-carbon fiber instead of part fiber, part plastic. He still wonders if an Indian make could offer solutions.

What costs him INR 15,000 in part fiber is about to escalate to INR 60,000 with full carbon fiber. And he needs to change them every 4-5 months, which will set him back by INR 3 lakh till the Paris Paralympics, though money is not the issue here, getting a perfect fit is. Light and safe. The experimenting will continue.

Para sport demands more tech interventions than able-bodied, and Bhagat reckons he is willing to go to the limits to ensure he gets himself the best prosthetics available so he can build himself and the country a long legacy of gold medals. He’s been exchanging emails with Japanese makers for a year now, alongside training and collecting ranking points.

It’s a long way from where he started – barefeet under a wedding shamiana in Orissa’s outback. But with the para gold, he believes he deserves the best tech backing in the world.

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