The politics of sport

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 24, 2010 19:50 hrs

Indian sports bodies need to swept clean of those who continually undermine it.

What would be your dream job in India? For some, perhaps MS Dhoni’s. Captain the Indian cricket team, rake in millions through endorsements and be the hero of almost a billion people. For some it could be doing what Shah Rukh does. Romance beautiful women on screen, be adored by millions of fans as the country’s biggest superstar. But nothing comes closer to a dream job than that of heading a sports body or federation in India. After all, to be in Dhoni’s shoes, you have to score runs and face irate fans if the team performs badly. Or if you’re Khan, then, too, a couple of flop film can take some of the sheen off the stardom. But heading a sports federation means you aren’t held accountable for poor results or your actions. From time to time, you get to go on foreign jaunts and the best part of the deal is that nobody questions your credentials. Besides, a seat in the Lok Sabha or a stint in any ministry is considered a good enough qualification to head a sports body.

Most sporting bodies or institutions in India are headed by politicians. and the incumbents treat their positions as manna from heaven. Vijay Kumar Malhotra, leader of opposition in Delhi assembly, probably never ever held a bow and arrow but is president of the Indian Archery Association. Vidya Stokes is 83 years old. We wouldn’t be far wrong in saying that former Indian hockey captain Pargat Singh — the man she beat in the Hockey India presidential elections — knows more about hockey than Stokes. The less we say about the evergreen Suresh Kalmadi the better.

After every disappointing Olympics campaign, questions are raised on why politicians, and not sportsmen, are managing Indian sport. But after a few days, the clamour dies down and people forget about it. To be fair to the sports ministry, it does its bit by allocating funds. In the Union Budget 2010-11, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee set aside Rs 3,565 crore — of which about Rs 2,000 crore was earmarked for the Delhi Commonwealth Games — for sports. It’s a different story that these allocated funds aren’t used proportionally and are often misused. The several scams that surfaced around the Commonwealth Games are a testimony to that.

Joachim Carvalho, former Indian hockey coach, is certainly not happy with the way the national sport is being managed. "Over a decade of mismanagement and we are still not willing to change the system," he says. On paper, the administrators do their bit. For instance, in hockey, India has had two foreign coaches — Australian Ric Charlesworth and Spain’s Jose Brasa. Yet, all they had to say at the end of their tenures were how poorly hockey was run in the country. Viren Rasquinha, former hockey player and now CEO of Olympic Gold Quest believes that unless people running sports bodies are held accountable, things won't change. "We have to get a professional system in place, where people are paid well and their progress is monitored," he says. Honorary presidents and administrators won’t do any good to Indian sport, he adds. Players have always felt that they aren’t given enough support and at the end of the day, find themselves helpless. "At times, you do wonder if the people managing a particular sport have any idea about it, forget having ever played it," says a champion shooter.

Thanks to the sorry state of affairs that Indian sports finds itself in due to the administrators, organisations like Olympic Gold Quest, Mittal’s Champions Trust, Go Sports Foundation have come up. These organisations make sure that the athletes get at least some of what they want, something which the sports federations should be doing in the first place. But how long can we rely on such organisations? There will come a point when administrators have to be held accountable. Can a civil society movement help? Clean Sports India, an organisation founded by former Olympians and sportsmen wants to rectify that. Ashwini Nachappa, former Olympian and the vice president of CSI, feels that it’s high time people are held accountable for their actions in Indian sport. "Nobody should treat a federation post as a ‘politcial seat’ and a fair chance must be given to all," she says. Nachappa says that they want CSI to be a civil movement. "We aren’t saying that all federations should be run by sportsmen but they should be given a chance to see if they can improve things," adds Nachappa. (see box for more on CSI)

The posts of sports administrators are often considered a "reserved" seat for a politician. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi headed the All India Football Federation for years and when he couldn’t continue for health reasons, civil aviation minister Praful Patel replaced him. Patel is not a former football player nor a football expert but a politician. As compared to this, Europe’s football governing body is headed by former French football player Michel Platini. It’s not as if cricket is spared from the clutches of politicians. Sharad Pawar was the president of BCCI. Rajiv Shukla is a senior functionary of BCCI. There are many other such examples.

Not many people would raise eyebrows about politicians as administrators in sports if we produced world beaters on a consistent basis. But that’s far from being the case. The truth of the matter is that athletes aren’t treated well, or given enough respect. And there’s hardly enough infrastructure in place. Having a "long-term vision" or "grass roots development" requires real commitment, not lip service.

For clean sports
The man who came up with the idea of Clean Sports India is BVP Rao, a former civil servant and convener of the organisation. Rao was a member of the national equestrian team and was president of the Assam Equestrian Federation. "In Assam alone, there are over 35 politicians occupying various positions in sports bodies," he says. "Where else in the world will you find the entire sporting scene dominated by politicians?" He, along with Pargat Singh, Ashwini Nachappa and nine other former athletes want to make their voices heard. "We want athletes to be given an opportunity to stake a claim to improve the way sports bodies are managed," says Rao.

CSI is aware that it has a monumental task on its hands and would face many obstacles. But the organisation’s members want this to become a movement where civil society gets involved and asks questions on why Indian sports is badly managed? Or why India continues to perform below par at international events? Rao is hopeful that like-minded people from the corporate world, sporting arena and bureaucrats will realise the kind of work that needs to be done.

On their part, they have organised events and are active on the social media to create awareness about their campaign. Singh contested the elections for the president of Hockey India, but lost to Stokes, who, incidentally, resigned later on the grounds that she did not to have enough time on her hands for hockey. Rao and his colleagues at CSI are only too aware that the movement could fail.

But they are determined to persevere.

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