The IOA – and Indian sport administration in general – has been plagued by incompetence and corruption. Now, after much national embarrassment and international censure, things appear to be changing… but Shamya Dasgupta wonders if these aren’t superficial and grudging changes, cynically disguised as a restoration of the sporting spirit…
“It’s great news for the country and for the athletes. The Olympic Charter is supreme and India cannot do without it. The IOA [Indian Olympic Association] has now realised that it cannot do without the Olympic Charter. Had it realised this [earlier], the country would not have to be suspended for 14 months.”
This is what Randhir Singh said soon after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) lifted the ban on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) on February 11 this year.
Who is Randhir Singh? Well, he has been in the unenviable position of, on the one hand, being Secretary-General of the IOA since 1987, and, on the other, being India’s representative in the IOC since 2001. Yes, he is regarded as a clean man, and that reputation was untainted despite his being Vice-Chairman of the Organising Committee for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
But, Mr. Singh, why did it take you over a year, and forever before that, to know how important the Olympic Charter was? Shouldn’t you have done something about it earlier?
But this is only as ridiculous as everything else that has taken place around this most shameful period in Indian sport administration. I won’t say Indian sport, because the fault and the responsibility lay with the administrators, and therefore, the shame belonged to them, not sportspersons, or sports lovers, or sports financers – the other three quarters that make up sport.
Now, before moving on to the extremely easy job of lambasting the administrators, let’s understand what happened and why things reached such a pass.
A bunch of incompetent and possibly corrupt people ran the affairs at the IOA for many years. Many, if not most, of these people were politicians. In one of the few places in India where they don’t mind coming together, these politicians, cutting across party lines, joined hands and, in the guise of doing something good for Indian sport, sent it hurtling into an abyss of sorts. For the longest time, the people who ran the business globally, the IOC, didn’t bother. It was the Commonwealth Games fiasco in 2010 that alerted them and, since then, they began taking an interest. The more they did, the more they realised what a shambles things were in. Their stance was simple: conduct fair, corruption-free elections and put a proper set of people in charge, and these people should have nothing to do with the government. For a year or so, the IOA did nothing constructive but tried to make it appear as though they were. It didn’t cut ice with the IOA. And it was only when, recently, proper elections were held, under the supervision of the IOC, that the IOA was allowed back into the IOC’s fold.
Suresh Kalmadi had already been sidelined, and the latest elections were conducted without Abhay Chautala and Lalit Bhanot, two other senior sports administratorsbest kept at arm’s length, in the frame.
India isn’t just a tin-pot republic. Why don’t we find it offensive to be regarded as unfailingly corrupt? Even if the Indian government is not interested in sport, doesn’t it feel ashamed that the international sporting community will forever associate New Delhi, and therefore India, with the sham and scam that was the Commonwealth Games?
The new IOA president is N. Ramachandran, a Tamil Nadu- based businessman and brother of N. Srinivasan, the not universally liked chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The new IOA president is also the chief of the World Squash Federation and while there is no major taint on him, there has been talk of him running the Squash Rackets Federation of India like a bit of a fiefdom, making Chennai the hub of the sport and, allegedly, favouring players from the home state.
These allegations may or may not be true. What’s important right now, with the next Olympics due just over two years later in Rio de Janeiro, is some stability, and Ramachandran, in the eyes of the IOC, can provide that. “The IOC observers told the EB [IOC’s Executive Board] members that the elections were held in full respect of the recently passed NOC[National Olympic Committee] constitution, which complies with all IOC requirements, including the clause that no one convicted or charge-framed [person] can run for a position within the organisation,” said the IOC in an official statement after changing the IOA’s status.
Ergo, all is well for now.
Things are even looking somewhat better in Indian boxing as a result of this development. Remember that while the IOA was banned, the world governing body of boxing had also banned the Indian Boxing Federation for similar reasons, forcing Indian boxers, like other Indian athletes, to take part in international events not as part of an Indian team, but as independent athletes.
Asit Banerjee, president of the Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation and one of the leaders of the faction that is trying to bring transparency to the administration of the sport, explained “Of course the lifting of the ban on the IOA will help us. We are going to use that example to try and push for free and fair elections in boxing. Everyone will understand that if the ban on the Indian Boxing Federation has to be lifted, we need to follow the example of the IOA.” But why were things allowed to reach such embarrassing proportions in the first place?
No, India isn’t the first country to be banned by the IOC for political interference and nor is the Indian Boxing Federation the first association to be handed such a fate.
But India isn’t just a tin-pot republic. Why don’t we find it offensive to be regarded as unfailingly corrupt? Even if the Indian government is not interested in sport, doesn’t it feel ashamed that the international sporting community will forever associate New Delhi, and therefore India, with the sham and scam that was the Commonwealth Games?
Doesn’t it hurt people in positions of power when the IOA is banned?
Think about it – people, rich and powerful ones at that, over 50, 60, 70 years of age, are told, clearly, that they can’t be trusted and need a ‘referee’ to ensure that they don’t cheat. Isn’t that what the IOC overseer was doing? And that’s what the boxing federation might need now.
The new IOA president is also the chief of the World Squash Federation and while there is no major taint on him, there has been talk of him running the Squash Rackets Federation of India like a bit of a fiefdom, making Chennai the hub of the sport and, allegedly, favouring players from the home state
All this comes at a time when the usually underperforming (oh, that’s another long and exasperating saga) Indian Olympic athletes are doing better than ever before. Of the 26 medals India have from 23 appearances at the Olympic Games, six were won in 2012, the last edition. From 20 in 22, the strike rate has finally gone above one per edition, and that’s happened, as the old cliché goes, despite the system and not because of it.
No one expects the people in charge of Indian sport to do much anyway, but is it too much to ask of them to not mess things up this badly?
The most heartening change from the past in recent times was the active role played by prominent athletes in trying to clean things up. Abhinav Bindra, at the forefront of the campaign, even said when asked if the IOA had failed the country, “To a certain extent, yes. We are still stuck with fighting on clauses that are absolutely non-negotiable… something which is all about ethics. The ethical standards are laid down under the Olympic Charter and to defy that is not good. It does not go well for the Olympic movement.”
This, after Bhanot was ‘elected’ IOA secretary-general after serving an 11-month prison term for his role in the Commonwealth Games fiasco and the IOA refused to accept the IOC’s directive that tainted officials be kept out of the body. The IOA’s stance – hear this – was that they would not accept such a blanket ban.
That was then. Now, somehow – and I am still not sure how they saw logic and good sense – the IOA has finally done the right thing. But has it done so willingly? If so, perhaps we can hope that things will get better. If not, it won’t be long before everything goes pear-shaped again.
Shamya Dasgupta is the Senior Editor of Wisden India