Games sports bodies play

Meddle Tally: Indian athletes’ good showing at Asian Games was despite the ‘system’ and the chaos

Behind each of the 69 medals India won at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, there are stories — of blood, sweat and tears. Those who missed out on medals, too, have their tales. A common thread running through the two would be their struggles against the ‘system’.

These are days of celebrations, of felicitations, of honouring medal winners and enjoying a share of that limelight. From ministers to federation officials, those in power are busy patting backs on a record-breaking run by the country’s athletes. In these feel-good times, there is hardly any space and time for those bitter stories.

But people remember. Especially those who had to endure the rough side of the selection criteria that kept changing till the last minute. People who were on tenterhooks cannot afford to forget the agony they endured as the government and the Indian Olympic Association, the apex body of sports in the country, went on a flip-flop mode prior to the Games.

Chopping and changing squads, dropping and adding events, court cases, charges and counter-charges — the games prior to the actual games made a mockery of the efforts made to streamline the entire process. Adding fuel to the fire were the national sports federations, eager to push their sport into the Games fold, by means fair or foul.

At the Jakarta International Equestrian Park three weeks ago, Dr Hasneyn Mirza, father of India’s silver medal winner Fouaad Mirza, explained the mindset of a person made to run through such a tortuous gauntlet.

“A rider, at the end of the day, has to focus only on his sport. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you are taking part or not. One day, you are selected; then, the next day, you are not going; then, you are selected again. There was so much uncertainty. That should never be the case,” said the renowned equine specialist.

Strange was the way in which the equestrian team made it to the Asian Games. Two days after the squad was selected by the Equestrian Federation of India, its president Ashok Ambre nullified the decision. It took plenty of persuasion at different levels for a seven-member squad to finally make it to Jakarta. That they returned with two silver medals — in individual eventing and team eventing — came as an indictment of the decision not to send the team.

The equestrian story gets highlighted now because the team vindicated their presence in Jakarta through those medals, but Dr Mirza’s comments could well have been about many other sportspersons in the Indian contingent. Some were deserving while the others deserved a serious second look, highlighting the mess within, at different levels.

Before every multi-discipline event, the selection of the Indian contingent follows a familiar pattern. The government norms for selection — issued on March 10, 2015 — states that the performance of the selected athletes should not be less than the performance of the sixth position holder of the previous edition of the respective tournament. For team events, it prescribed teams that have achieved an eighth place in concerned tournaments in the past one year.

Adhering to the norms has proved tricky. The government itself suggested a dilution of norms this time if any teams had lacked exposure prior to the Games. But the last-minute directive had no impact other than muddying the scene further. But more worrying were the ways adopted by the sports federations to circumvent the norms, showing that if you have men in the right places, the teams can find their way through. Handball was a case in point. With no performance of note to back them, the women’s team made its way to Jakarta while the men arrived on the basis of a court order. It was pointed out that with five teams having withdrawn from the Games, the team was ranked seventh! Curiously, India’s name figured in the draws for the competition even before the team was cleared for the Games. But their performances exposed the selection, with both the outfits failing to win even a match in the league phase.

With the selection of teams far from transparent in many cases, court cases were the order of the day in a disquieting trend. The IOA was forced to alter its sailing team after Varsha Gautham (49er FX women’s event) challenged Yachting Association of India’s team selection successfully. Varsha justified her claims by winning a silver along with Sweta Servegar.

Taekwondo, badminton and traditional boat-racing also saw sportspersons moving court with varied results. Doubles player Aparna Balan’s petition challenging her exclusion was rightly thrown out while taekwondo and boat racing made it to Indonesia, only to return with no rewards. Shockingly, the boat race team was cleared on the basis of an event that was held after the entries for the Games had been closed.

Perhaps, the sport hit worst in the power play among the officials was kabaddi. The game that helped the country save face in 1990 fetched only a bronze and a silver this time, after enjoying a golden run in the continent for long. The selection of the men’s team had been challenged in the court prior to the Games itself and the drama is set to continue for some more time, with the court ordering a match between the Asiad team and those who were left out, before the medal-winning team is handed any rewards. Is it a surprise then that the team couldn’t win the coveted gold?

A cursory look at the country’s sports scene would show numerous other examples of infighting and power struggle that have pegged back progress just when good times seemed around the corner. Boxing and volleyball are prime examples. While boxing, after a prolonged struggle, managed to come through the storm and win two medals, volleyball presented the sad picture of a sport laid low by faction-fights when it should have been vying for a place among the elite.

Observers of Indian sports would say there isn’t anything new in the current landscape. True, but the sad part is, it is hurtling from bad to worse. The controversies that preceded Jakarta were too many for an Indian sportspersons’ comfort and they shouldn’t be forgotten in the light of the record medal haul. A proper procedure in team selection, clear-cut norms in deciding the events and a journey without chaos — are these too much of an ask?


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