By Shatabdi Chakrabarti
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Videographer / director: Shams Qari
Producer: Shatabdi Chakrabarti, Ruby Coote
Editor: Ross Dower
Mark Dharma, the son of a fisherman, is not only making India proud by winning medals internationally, but has also become a beacon of hope and inspiration for the dwarf community.
32-year-old Dharma, from Mumbai, India, was born with a form of dwarfism called Achondroplasia, which results in short arms and legs. But Mark found support in his family and has never let his condition be an excuse to hold himself back.
He told Barcroft TV: “When I was born, I was kept in an incubator and my life was at risk. But my mom always believed that I would achieve something in life.
"I am the only one in my family who has this condition. But my family has always supported me, specially my mother. “
Mark got introduced to sports at a very young age. He was playing hockey and football in school where his talent was recognised by the school principal.
Mark explained: “Father Evans guided me into sports. From school level, I continued playing both hockey and football in college as well.
"But it was difficult. In hockey, I faced issues due to the length of the stick and it was too big for me. But I did not give up. I had that courage to not give up.”
From football and hockey, Mark moved onto badminton. Since he was already known as a sportsperson, one of his friends informed him about the tournaments that are held for people with dwarfism.
He said: “At that time, I didn’t know that there was something called the Dwarf Games. So when my friend informed me about it, I searched online and found out that there are many dwarf sportspersons who are competing all over the world.
"I sent out a message on social media, simply asking if anyone has more information on dwarf sports meets, could they get in touch. Someone from the Bangalore association replied back and that’s when I started participating in the para sports tournaments for dwarfs.”
He said: “Once I decided to try badminton, that was it. Everything changed. And I am a para badminton champion now.”
Since taking up the sport, Mark has won a plethora of medals in tournaments. In 2015, he won bronze for both men’s singles and doubles categories at the Para Badminton World Championship in England. In 2016, he again won bronze at the Open International Para Badminton Tournament in Ireland.
Participating in China for the Asia Para Badminton Championship in 2016, Mark won gold, silver and bronze in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. At the World Dwarf Games in US last year, he won both gold and silver in the singles category for men and at the Japan Open Para Badminton Tournament, he won silver for both doubles and mixed doubles categories.
Mark has just returned from Korea after participating in the World Championship 2018, after winning bronze in the doubles category.
And Mark is now reaching out to a larger audience and has given TED talks as well.
He said: “I never count my medals, but I think I have close to 50 medals in national tournaments and my international medals have reached double digits.”
And, incredibly, Mark has now also branched out into athletics.
He explained: “A lot of international players who have always supported me in badminton, suggested that I get into athletics as well and that’s how I started doing shot put and discus throw.”
Mark has since participated in state, National and International levels in athletics. At the World Dwarf Games held in the US in 2017, he won silver medals for both discus and shot put for India.
Mark’s attitude towards life has inspired everyone who comes in contact with him. Nawal Seth, whom Mark calls his life coach, says that he got to know about Mark through a newspaper article when his team returned from the World Dwarf Games in 2015.
Nawal said: “ I used to meet him once a week but the our friendship took off soon after. I guide him as best as I can. I am a catalyst in his life but I have no pretensions of having created Mark, Mark created himself.”
Crediting Mark for being a positive influence for the dwarf community, Nawal said: “A big problem with their community is that they face a lot of discrimination. But along with Mark, we have now created a small team of people who are friends, but also sports persons.”
A member of this group, 49-year-old Bina Gandhi, who works as an accountant, paid tribute to Mark.
He said: ”When Mark suggested that I take up sports, I was unsure, specially due to my age. But he encouraged me, boosted my confidence and gave me a platform. He is God’s gift to me.”
Bina started with discus throw and has already won championships in the National level. Mark trained her and guided her on participating in the sports events. Calling this group the ‘Little Giants,’ Mark believes that the dwarf community just needs a platform to showcase their talent.
And Bina is quick to pay tribute to Mark.
She said: “I had no idea that there are sports events held for the people of my height and that there is something called the Dwarf World Games. It was Mark who introduced me to this possibility and I came to know that we can also do so many things. If normal people can, so can we.”
In India, many people think that the only way a person with dwarfism can earn a living is by working in a circus or doing small roles in films. For Mark, his dwarfism was not the only challenge. Convincing people for sponsorships was also a difficult task.
He said: ”There were times when I doubted myself thinking people might mock me and will never appreciate me. The first impression about us is that this is a dwarf. I had lot of financial problems because people would usually think that a dwarf can’t achieve so much. But people like us do have talent and that needs to be recognised.”
“My mom knew that I would be short, but I didn’t know that and I used to ask her when will I grow. It was only later that I realised and understood my condition. But I challenged myself that I will never give up in life.”
Mark’s journey is not only winning accolades for the country in the International forums, it is also providing a positive and inspirational motivation to many like him.
As Nawal says: “He may be tiny, he may be a dwarf, but he is a giant in the true sense of the word.”