“We Don’t Want Sympathy, We Need Respect” – Sumit Antil  

Sumit Antil is a rare athlete. He has already broken multiple world records in the last few years, and is expected to break a few more in the Asian Para Games and the Paris Paralympics in 2024. Rooted and humble, Antil is committed to the cause of para sports in India and feels the time is ripe to push through ground-breaking changes in the domain.

Sumit was my guest in the fourth episode of Trailblazers, a show celebrating our Paralympic Champions, and presented by Tata Steel.

Boria: In Paris, your throw of 70.83m was a phenomenal one. To see an Indian breaking his own world record is a real rarity and we need a lot more talk on such efforts.

Sumit: Thank you. And yes, I agree with you that there should be more awareness on para sports in India. While there has been a sea change since Tokyo, a lot still needs to be done. If you go and ask someone about the classifications for example, few would be able to tell you what they are and how the athletes are classified. As a result there are a lot of athletes who don’t really know what classification they should compete in. With increased awareness, we can do a lot better than what we are currently doing.

Coming to the throw, yes, it was a very good effort. To be able to cross the 70-metre mark was a milestone. In our trials back home, I had thrown 71 metres and was confident of crossing the 70-metre mark in Paris. That’s what has given me a lot of satisfaction. When I started playing the sport, the world record stood at 59m. People used to treat us with sympathy. The idea was that para sport is simple, and a few people play and win medals for fun. It wasn’t considered serious and wasn’t accorded the recognition it deserves. Now with throws like these, people know that it is serious sport. In Paris the 100 meters was won with a timing of 10.2s, almost as good as the best able-bodied 100m time in India.

With a throw of 70m, people know that we are as good as any athlete. I aim to touch 75 or even 80 and that’s what is my goal.

Boria: At the recently concluded Asian Athletic Championships, DP Manu won silver with a throw of 81 meters. So if you are aiming for 80, it is as good as any able-bodied throw.

Sumit: That’s the aim and the ambition. You need to do something that makes people sit up and take notice of Para sport. That’s when the country will celebrate us. Take us seriously and know that our fight for equality is a fair one. We don’t want sympathy. We need respect, and to earn respect, we need to push the bar.

Also Read: Trailblazers: A series celebrating Paralympic Sport : Episode 1 Conversation with Deepa Malik

Boria: Having said that, there has been effort from PCI, SAI, MYAS, Govt of India and a number of other agencies to celebrate the achievements. That’s where things have been better. The sports minister has personally congratulated every medal winner and celebrated every effort. The Prime Minister has led the way by celebrating and talking about these athletes in a number of forums, and also on social media. PCI has done some superb work. Your thoughts?

Sumit: Without doubt. The Government has never discriminated between able-bodied and para. The PCI has done incredible work in the last few years. What I am speaking about is mass awareness. More media coverage, more awareness among people. In Paris, you could see how athletes of other countries are treated. They are celebrated by men and women from across society. That’s the change I am speaking about. But when it comes to PCI, I have to say we have received tremendous support from the Federation. Sometimes people have gone beyond the call of duty to help. In 2018, I needed some money to buy a prosthetic leg and Gursharan Sir, (Secretary General of the PCI) gave me money from his personal funds to get it organised. He was generous enough to say I could return the money when I received the funds. That’s what has made a difference to the sport.

Boria: It is essential to state in this context that our treatment of you, Yogesh, Nishad, and others and the sensitivity and affection showered on these super achievers will go a long away to defining us as a ‘people’, and will tell the world what kind of a society we are. Are we celebrating our para athletes enough or are we still going to discriminate? Will the sports fan in India celebrate Sumit as much as Neeraj or Rohit Sharma today?

Sumit: In the West, para athletes have for long been accorded the same respect as any other athlete. Medal winners have been feted in the same manner and the para games receive similar prominence in the media. In India, however, this has never been the case. We have as a society tended to look down upon our para athletes, have invested little in facilities that will encourage them to take up sport and done very little to decorate them and turn them into national icons. Such a mindset betrays the very ideals of equality and civil liberty that the country stands for. For us, the Tokyo Paralympics helped in transforming this trend. The number of medals in Paris is an indication how good the athletes have become. Tokyo had given us the opportunity.

Boria: Indian sports can take a giant leap in the next one year. We now know that it is possible. Eminently possible. It is time to become a sensitive, multi-sporting nation. Alongside the Asia Cup and the World Cup, we need to celebrate the Asian Games and the Asian Para Games. That’s where we become a better India, a more inclusive India.

Sumit: If this is done, you will see the results in the medals tally as well. You will see us athletes do everything we can for India. We hope to continue the good run in China and then in Paris. As I said, this is the time to bring about real change in India.

I am appreciative of the support from Tata Steel to support and celebrate the cause of Para Sport in India. My thanks also to the PCI and the office-bearers for their help.

Also Read: Sumit Antil’s Record-Breaking Throw in Paris Demands Recognition and Celebration in India

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