Even while the whole country is cheering the achievements of Indian women athletes at the ongoing Tokyo Olympics, a female athlete with hearing impairment from the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu -- with an outstanding track record -- has been dropped from participating at the 4th World Deaf Athletics Championships to be held from August 23-28 in Poland. Sameeha Barwin, being the only female sports person among the Indian athletes who were selected during the national trials, was allegedly dropped by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as it was unwilling to send a female athlete alone with five male athletes to Poland.
The 18-year-old Sameeha, who has 90% hearing impairment, is a long jump and 100-metre track athlete who had been competing since the age of 12. Sameeha has won gold medals at three national athletic championships for deaf athletes held in Jharkhand in 2017, Chennai in 2018 and Calicut in 2019.
Speaking to TNM, Salamath, Sameehaâ€™s mother says that Sameeha has broken the 1986 record set in 100 metre track, and although she initially was against her daughter pursuing sports she later agreed as Sameeha was good. â€śMy daughter is an excellent athlete. And the federation has wronged Sameeha by dropping her for such silly reasons. More than anything, I am now fighting for her dignity,â€ť says Salamath.
During the trials in New Delhi in July 2019, Sameeha cleared the 5 m mark, which is above the qualifying mark of 4.25 m in the long jump event for women. Subsequently, on July 16, 2021, the All India Sports Council for the Deaf (AISCD) announced national selection trials for the World Deaf Athletics Championships. For this, 12 athletes who are hearing-impaired were called, among them were two women athletes (one being Sameeha). During the trial on July 22, the other female athlete was not selected for the Poland championships. As Sameeha was the only female athlete to make the cut for the championships, the SAI allegedly decided to drop her name.
Salamath says, â€śI was told that they cannot send my daughter alone as she is only a female athlete and also arrangements cannot be made for an escort due to shortage of funds.â€ť
Though the family made efforts to get Sameehaâ€™s name back on the list, it was in vain. Meanwhile, the MP of Kanyakumari constituency, V Vijayakumar wrote to the Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur on July 26 requesting him to ensure that the athlete is included in the Poland squad. Despite the letter reaching the ministerâ€™s office within a couple of days, no action has been taken, alleges Salamath. Vijayakumar in his letter also mentioned that funds to sponsor the athleteâ€™s trip can be arranged. Yet the family received no response on the matter.
Sameehaâ€™s family runs a small coffee shop at Kadaiyaalumoodu in Kanyakumari, and is reeling from a huge financial crisis.
â€śIt requires a huge deal of money to come to Chennai to meet federation officials or ministers. With the help of people we are able to make a few trips to Chennai so that I can get justice for my daughter,â€ť adds Salamath.
Padmini Chennapragada, a Disability Sports Researcher in India says, â€śFirstly, the sports federations and other organisations working in this domain must be made transparent. Their operations are largely stonewalled for the public. And this can be achieved only by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) and also by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.â€ť
â€śSecondly, procuring documents and certificates from organisations such as the AISCD and Sports Authority of India (SAI) is a strenuous job. In my experience as a researcher, nothing less than an RTI request can get us any information, and in recent years, I have seen the RTI method is also failing. Due to a lack of proof detailing their sport participation, the players are unable to advocate for their advancement in situations like Sameeha. In my service of eight years, I have seen good athletes not being able to compete internationally due to internal politics within the federations that receive minimal oversight from MYAS,â€ť adds Padmini.
â€śAnd even if athletes demand transparency in the procedures or documentation to record their activities, chances are that they will be cold-shouldered, treated poorly, and branded a rebel. There are at least 15 athletes with disabilities I know in India who have lost their careers because they took a rights-based approach while communicating with their sports federationâ€ť says Padmini. She also wrote a letter to AISCD on August 5, regarding Sameeha being allegedly dropped, but she has still not received a response.
As per reports, the team representing India is set to leave for Poland on August 14. TNM has reached out to the sports federations for a response, and a reply is awaited