News recently broke of another disappointing tale in Indian athletics – disappointing, yet all too familiar. Once again, the country’s bungling officials were left red-faced and its athletes embarrassed, as 18 Indians were sent back from Nanjing, China for overshooting the competition’s age criteria.
In an interview with Sportskeeda, Maneesh Bahugana, CEO of Anglian Medal Hunt, an organisation that sponsors Indian athletes, said: “It’s really demoralising when you support an athlete, and for some clerical error the athlete has to come back without participating.”
Part of a 27-member athletics delegation, the young Indians were not allowed to compete at the Games, with the incident coming close on the heels of another gaffe which saw four badminton players travel to Nanjing only to realise that they had not been entered in their events on time.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole ordeal was that it didn’t seem like a surprise at all, given the mishaps of recent years – be it the misappropriation of funds for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, or the standoff between the IOC and IOA that resulted in the Indian organisation’s suspension.
While the country’s image took a beating again with this latest goof, officials started to point fingers at anyone possible in order to absolve themselves of the blame. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI), which had conducted the selections for the athletes, suggested that the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of the IOA, who had not given them clear instructions about the age criterion that was to be followed. As a result, they had selected athletes based on IAAF rules, and not the IOC rules that the Youth Games were being held under.
The Sports Authority of India (SAI) took swipes at the AFI, demanding that the Rs. 10 lakh purse spent on airfare for the athletes be given back to them. To no one’s surprise, the IOA, India’s apex sports body, said that they had no hand to play in the mess. Eventually, an inquiry (India’s favourite word in the time of trouble) was called for.
“The officials made the erroneous assumption that this was an Under-18 event,” Bahugana said. “They need to check the age criteria for every event. It’s not a question of which rules apply. Why should they make such an assumption? You could call it an oversight, but to have 22 athletes return for such reasons is a monumental blunder.”
In the middle of this whole fracas, there has been a visible disregard from the authorities towards the athletes who had travelled to Nanjing to compete, but were left twiddling their thumbs. Many among the travelling party were medal contenders, for whom success at a major international competition could have been a springboard for bigger and better things.
Bahugana agreed, saying: “Eventually, no one bears the suffering except the athletes. They (officials) made such a major faux pas, and the athletes had to suffer because of that. For example, Dutee Chand would have won the 100m and 200m golds with her timings, so it’s not fair to them.
“It denies them a competitive international event. They trained hard for it, and had a month-long camp in Trivandrum for the Games. They would have participated with their future rivals, and would have got to learn so much, not to mention gain confidence, after participating on such a stage.”
Having been suspended by the IOC for accommodating the corrupt lot that masterminded the 2010 Commonwealth Games scam, the Indian Olympic Association has given its parent body more reason to believe that it is incapable of handling affairs with clarity and responsibility.
The country’s crooks and their cronies, however, remain defiant and refuse to step down from their posts, on the premise that according to the land’s laws, they are innocent until proved guilty. Amidst this mess, it’s the Indian athletes who stand to be the ones most affected, as they are robbed of the chance to play for their country.
For now, they participate as independent athletes under the banner of the Olympic Council of Asia, and unless the situation is resolved, the same will happen for future events as well.
“Sports bodies have to be transparent,” Bahugana stated. “The IOC was well within its rights to say that people with active chargesheets cannot hold posts. The officials have to realise that they can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. The IOC in fact has been magnanimous by allowing Indian athletes under the independent banner.”
With the Youth Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games to be held next year, and the Rio Olympics in 2016, time is running out for India to salvage its pride. The ban on the IOA is retractable, but will require a thorough straightening out, failing which India will be bereft of any official participation in athletics events.
As ace badminton player Ashwini Ponnappa aptly put it: “We athletes are going to suffer. What is the point of playing under the Olympic flag? It is not the same. There is no patriotism. Olympics are amazing as you get to represent your country in the biggest sporting event. At the same time, the IOA deserves it. Wish the athletes did not have to pay for it.”
Every Indian would want to see the nation be represented at the biggest sports events in the world. But even in the face of that sentiment, the only people who seem to be in the right are the members of the International Olympic Committee. After all, they have taken the first steps to rid India of the plague that infects it. Until the malaise is eliminated, the story of the 22 returnees from China seems likely to be a story that will be retold again in the near future.