One of five countries making its Paralympic debut at the Tokyo Games, Bhutan is represented by a trio of athletes hoping to promote a bigger role in sports and society for people with disabilities in the tiny Himalayan kingdom.
The inaugural Bhutan Paralympic team is comprised of men’s recurve archer Pema Rigsel, along with Gyeltshen Gyeltshen and Chimi Dema, competing in the men’s and women’s shot put F40, respectively.
Athletics coach Penjor Gyeltshen said Bhutan launched its National Paralympic Committee in 2017 to foster social inclusion in accordance with the country’s unique Gross National Happiness index.
Used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of the population, the GNH index was introduced by the Bhutanese government as an alternative to benchmarks focused solely on economic factors.
“Bhutan is known as one of the happiest nations,” the coach said during a recent online interview. “(The) idea is to make everybody happy. So we have to be an inclusive society (and) we cannot leave out people with disabilities.”
Coach Gyeltshen said compassion for people with disabilities is integral to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture, but the country needs to improve accessibility, particularly in its remote, mountainous areas.
“It’s a Buddhist country, people are very compassionate. The major problem is accessibility. It’s a mountainous country, the school (buildings) are on a mountainside … this is an issue but we are slowly trying to learn from different partners,” he said.
“Coming (to Japan) is learning for us. We see several things that we can adapt in order to make our sports arenas inclusive.”
Dema, 27, who made her international debut at the Beijing Grand Prix in 2019, said she felt proud of what she had achieved since she began competing in the F40 classification for athletes of short stature.
“My life has changed a lot since I started para athletics two years back. I am also getting all kinds of support from various organizations, so I am now solely focusing on my sport,” she told the Tokyo 2020 site before the games.
The subject of a film shown on Bhutanese television about his life and career, 28-year-old thrower Gyeltshen has a talent for comedic acting, according to his coach.
While he has appeared in TV commercials in his home country, including for a butter-maker, the athlete has loftier goals for his acting.
“I would like to be the lead actor in a movie,” he said.
The Bhutanese National Paralympic Committee, which has received support from Japan and a number of NGOs, plans to increase participation in Paralympic sports, and subsequently boost the happiness index, through greater cooperation with schools that have students with disabilities.
“We need to take the movement into the schools. This is where we will find more athletes coming forward,” said coach Gyeltshen, who believes things are moving in the right direction.
“Our debut in the Paralympics movement itself is a sign that we are giving opportunities to everybody, so none of us are left out.”
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.