Of medals and meddlers
Just as the euphoric hype over India’s chances of a few medals in London Olympics (which opens in a couple of days) was building up, a newspaper story of Santhi Soundarajan, India’s silver medallist in the 800 metres event at Doha Asiad in 2006, has burst the bubble. Santhi, celebrated for her second place in a tough field, was cast out after she failed a sex test. Stripped of her medal and her records, Santhi now works as a daily wager in a brick kiln in a Tamil Nadu village.
TV channels went to the town with the story, eliciting sound bytes from India’s sports administrators who were clearly uncomfortable answering questions. The acting president of Indian Olympic Association (IOA), VK Malhotra, said his organisation was unaware that Santhi was labouring for 200 rupees a day, as no one had informed them about her plight. Adille Sumariwalla, president of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said he would like to help, but his outfit had barely enough money to train athletes.
Santhi’s plight is not new and certainly not unique. Some time ago, media reports highlighted the plight of Sylvanus Dung Dung, part of the gold medal winning Indian hockey team in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, who was begging everybody for a job so he can feed his family of six. Grand Prix medallist in archery, Usha Rani, barely 21, sold her bow to feed her family. India’s fastest woman, Asha Roy of Hooghly, helps her family sell vegetables to make ends meet. India’s women’s 4x400 metres relay team that won gold in the Asian Games at Guangzhou in China, are in disgrace for using performance-enhancement drugs. The sports administrators did little to save the girls from humiliation. The fact of the matter is that the Ukrainian coach of the girls pumped them with banned drugs. Everyone in the sports administration was perhaps aware of it. They took part in the nation’s adulation for the girls when they beat the Chinese to win the gold. But they immediately disowned them when the drugging was found out.
In the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, Indian wrestlers Ved Prakash, Udey Chand, Sudesh Kumar, Mukhtiar Singh and Harish Chandra Rajindra won the five gold medals that the country achieved. It later came out that their coach and chief of the contingent used to snaffle all their pocket money, a pittance of a couple of pounds a day, to go shopping, while the wrestlers, starved and broke, used to be shunted to the ‘langar’ of a local Gurdwara to be fed.
Those stories of sorrow and shame, in short, sum sports governance in India. Athletes, be in field events or in team games, give their heart and soul for glory. If they have failed, it is not because of lack of efforts. If they have succeeded, it is certainly not because of the sports administration.
As shooters Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang and Ranjan Sondhi, shuttlers Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, archer Deepika Kumari, tennis aces Leander Paes, Sania Mirza, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna, boxers Mary Kom, Vijender Kumar, Sumit Sangwan, Devendro Singh, Jai Bhagwan, Vikas Krishan, Shiva Thapa and Manoj Kumar and wrestlers Sushil Kumar, Amit Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Narsingh Yadav, Geeta Phogat, and of course, the hockey team led by Bharat Chetri hope for the medals, the sports administrators are rubbing their hands in glee hoping to bask in the glory. The man who has shamed Indian sports, former IOA chief Suresh Kalmadi, is straining every sinew in his body, not to win a medal, but to be able to be at the scene of action in London.
Look at football in India. Ignored at the grassroots levels, players in the national league barely make enough to support themselves and their families. Yet a politician like Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi ruled the All India Sports Federation for nearly twenty years from the 1980s onwards, a time which saw the India football team’s ranking drop. For 27 years under Munshi’s stewardship, India did not manage to qualify for the Asian Cup, let alone the World Cup, which in itself is a distant dream. Compare that with twenty years before Dasmunshi, when in 1964 India managed to finish as runners-up in the Asian Cup and were contenders by default in the 1950 World Cup (which was forfeited due to the association’s inability to provide requisite footwear).
Take the current football chief Praful Patel for example. According to Rediff news, Patel’s profile on the AIFF website describes him as an “ardent sportsman” but does not specify what sports he ardently plays. Instead, it says he is president of Western India Football Association and vice-president of Maharashtra Olympic Association.
Hockey India, the troubled regulator of India's national game, too is headed by Vidya Stokes, a Congress party worker and an MLA from Himachal Pradesh who does not have a background in sports.
The Chautala brothers (sons of former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala) are heading the Indian amateur boxing federation (IABF) and the table tennis federation of India (TFI). Vijay Kumar Malhotra is the boss of Indian archery association. Do these politicians have any clue about sports? The answer is a simple “no”.
Sports governance in India has been the preserve of politicians and busybodies. That has been the bane of India sports. As long as we get to see politicians instead of former sportspersons heading sports associations, we as Indians can forget about Olympic gold medals or World Cup glory.