Asian Games 2018: How record-fudging and flawed selection rules destroyed India’s medal hopes in canoeing
Athletics was the sport in which India sent its largest contingent to the Asian Games this time. 19 medals came from the 50 athletes who participated, making it a highly successful outing for them.
While we basked in the glory of Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra, have we ever wondered what happened to the sport that sent India's second largest contingent to Jakarta?
Canoeing, consisting of three events, had a total of 48 competitors from India. How many medals did they deliver?
The answer is a shocking zero.
The obvious questions swirling in anybody’s mind would be how did such a large group get the green signal to go to Indonesia? Was it just for the sake of participation? Is there really a transparent process to scrutinize who gets to represent India at the major competitions?
As we delve deeper to seek the answers to all these questions, we encounter a gloomy picture.
Record-fudging, nepotism, bias, flawed selection rules have slowly been ruining whatever chance India could have of progressing in this sport.
The biggest example is how 40-year-old Manjeet Singh, a government official, got an opportunity to represent India at the traditional boat race event in canoeing, despite having no prior background in the sport. To facilitate his selection, even non-existent medal records were fabricated.
The matter came to light after Digvijay Singh, a former Assistant Coach for Canoe Slalom National Team, sent an email to the Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, exposing the sad state of affairs.
Singh was the assistant coach for two years until he was removed from his position this June. Very much a crusader for canoeing now, he revealed to Sportskeeda about the goings-on that are a detriment to the growth of the sport in the country.
For years, the Indian Kayaking and Canoeing Association (IKCA), now helmed by president Sayed Matloob Matlabi Hashmi, has been selecting people according to their whims and conveniences. The rampant practice is well-known in the sports circles and all protests so far have been quashed. For fear of being thrown out of the team, the athletes have resorted to keeping quiet.
Fearless as he is, Digvijay Singh has forever been waging been a lonely battle against the corrupt officials. Knowing he doesn’t support malpractices, he was tactfully removed from his position, as Singh claims.
“The IKCA told the Sports Authority of India (SAI) that they didn’t want this coach,” Singh recounts, adding, “They did not say it directly. There was a national camp, where they did not give my name and gave somebody else’s. So automatically I lost my position.
“I was the assistant coach for the last time in May-June 2018. Even then I was against their rules and made it sure that everything is done fairly. But it doesn’t work when you fight alone.”
Having severed his ties with them, Singh knew he had to take some action when he spotted a certain Manjeet Singh in the Asian Games squad. His acquaintance with the former IKCA secretary general Balbir Singh Kushwaha during his days as an assistant coach, helped him to know Manjeet well. He immediately knew something was amiss when he read the numerous achievements that Manjeet’s profile has been embellished with.
That spurred him on to send the letter to the Sports Minister, which has all the details, supporting his claim.
“Canoe Slalom is a whitewater sport which you can’t learn at the age of 37-38,” explains Digvijay. “When Manjeet participated at the Asian Games, we saw his profile. The one that was sent to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is totally fake.
“He has absolutely no background of water sports. I know this very well. Manjeet doesn’t even know how to sit in a slalom boat.
“Aap bataiye aagar 40 saal ka ek sarkari karmachari wahaan jaake boat racing kare, to woh kaise medal laa sakte hain?” he raises a valid point.
In the mail to Rathore, he has elaborated how Manjeet and Prabhjot Kaur have been wrongfully shown to have participated in the 4th Canoe Slalom National Championships held in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh in 2016.
“Manjeet was not there in 2016, as the fake record says,” Digvijay vehemently points out. And he knows this very well as he was already the assistant national coach then.
The federation did not stop there and even selected them for the 2018 Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Dali, China. This unscrupulous practice reached the height of heights when Manjeet was then given the go-ahead for the Asian Games, with a fictitious glowing resume in canoeing that the IKCA created for him and sent to IOA.
Digvijay refutes those accomplishments with a counterclaim. While Manjeet’s profile says he participated at the 2017 Senior National Championships in Bhind, all he was doing at that time was arranging ICF Vice President Thomas Konietzko’s visit to India.
The IKCA has even said that Manjeet took part at the TBR/Dragon Boat Asian Championships in 2017, while in reality Manjeet never ever even went to Taiwan.
“You can check his passport and see that he never went to Taiwan. Because of some monetary favour, the former secretary general of IKCA, Balbir Singh Kushwaha and now his son Prashant Kushwaha, the present secretary-general, have given him a chance to go to the Asiad.”
Digvijay rues that the elder Kushwaha did not contribute to the development of canoeing at all during his tenure. His experience as the Director of Sports for Madhya Pradesh for nearly 20 years has only aided him in knowing the loopholes in the law that he could use to his advantage when it came to promoting someone of his choice.
Even the foreign coach, Jimy Bercon appointed from January 1, 2018, is fed up with the situation and has complained to the SAI.
“This has been going on for a long time. Even the foreign coach knows everything. He has already expressed his disappointment to people at SAI about how the federation is doing nothing at all for the sport.”
So far all attempts at bringing a change have failed. For fear of losing their jobs and their places in the squad, the coaches and athletes have refused to raise their voices, Digvijay alleges.
“Basically, if they are happy with you, they will take you and if they are not happy with you, you won’t get a chance.
“When they removed me, the French coach fought for me. He protested and said he doesn’t directly want to deal with the fake people at IKCA. He came back from the Asian Games and told me they are doing nothing for the sport.
“In kayaking and canoeing, India hasn’t ever qualified for the Olympics. All the coaches and athletes know what is happening but they have to keep quiet for fear of being kicked out.”
The chat with Digvijay was a pretty enlightening one as it helped shed light on another issue that could be an impediment to India’s development in this sport.
The IOA states that the athlete should be at least sixth at the Asian level to be able to participate in Canoe Slalom at the Asian Games.
This rule barred two deserving boys from making it to the Jakarta-bound squad, in spite of earning the coveted spot during the selection trials held at the Uttarakhand Rudraprayag Mandakini river. The result was that India could send only a couple of girls to the Asiad in this discipline while the boys were left out, despite proving their merit.
“The boys were new and they did not have this ranking. They had been practising for the last two years for this and just because of the IOA rule, they were not able to go. That was pretty unfair,” Digvijay laments.
This is another of the countless issues devouring the hopes and dreams of young canoeists in India, who aspire to bring back a medal for their country. That the sport has been a part of 15 Olympic Games so far and India does not feature even once, is depressing to say the least.
This stagnation itself indicates that an overhaul of the system is the need of the hour now.
Corruption seeping through Indian sports has been a major hindrance to the country blossoming into a sporting superpower. Babus ruling organizations for ages rather than someone qualified to do the job is something we have got acquainted with for years now.
In the last few years, we have indeed managed to uproot some of the immoral practices and that resulted in India's rapid improvement in sports. It particularly got reflected in this year's Asian Games, where India had its best-ever medal haul. But with such sordid stories springing up, the question remains -- has India really been able to make progress in every sphere?
India’s fall from grace in kabaddi at the 2018 Asiad is another manifestation of how much corruption has pervaded through its system.
Until and unless a complete clean-up is done, hard-working, deserving athletes will continue to suffer in silence and nothing could be more shameful than that.