The Games India Plays
It took Dr Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) less than a minute to say India was suspended because it did not adhere to the rules of the Olympic Charter despite being told to do so. He was not familiar with the names of the newly-elected office bearers and IOC did not have any provisional agreement to accommodate India’s concerns in the meantime. In other words, processes, not individuals, were important to the sporting institution.
Contrast this to what we have done to ourselves over the past two days. Within a matter of hours, we decided to kick ourselves out of the IOC and kick-in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. It will take more than 10 years for India to enjoy the benefits of FDI in retail – assuming retailers are rushing in to develop our backbone – waiting as we have been with open arms and sagging credibility in other sectors like power, infrastructure, healthcare, roads etc. It takes more than 10 years with the best of training and resources to produce world class athletes. Just as you cannot develop an economy on lather and cream, you cannot be a strong sporting nation if you lie, throw tantrums about rules and sulk in public. The comparisons don’t end there, but will suffice for the purpose of this piece.
When your job does not allow you to become an expert on all issues –which is my case – you have time to read up and question expertise that is passed off as knowledge beyond the pale of common comprehension. On Tuesday afternoon, the expected happened. The IOC suspended the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) for opaque and sustained vote-fixing and governmental interference during the election on Wednesday of its office bearers. We had been fore-warned about the consequences of unethical practices and last week, the riot act was read out to us as it became clear that under the guise of the government Sports Code, the IOA would be led by people including those whose CVs include jail terms, charge-sheets and amassing of disproportionate assets. Instead of being red-faced, we did a Haryana on the IOC, just short of pulling out a gun and shooting the world sports authority between the eyes for doing its job. And then we disappeared. The news channels did their bit – outrage, outrage – and moved on. Barring a few athletes, the sporting community was either too scared or too compromised – like the rest of India – to tell the government and the IOA where they get off.
For ten hours after a news agency report informed the world on Tuesday that the IOC had cracked the whip on us, we remained unconcerned. The international sporting body was unable to confirm our suspension officially because nobody in India was willing to officially accept the notification. Accepting a phone call from Switzerland on the eve of the vote on FDI – also called the night of invisible suitcases – would have been tantamount to committing political hara-kiri for the gnomes that run the IOA, the Indian government and us. Past midnight (IST), the IOC issues a terse note that reflected its frustration in the face of our stupidity. “It has not been easy to deal with the IOA”, said an IOC official speaking on conditions of anonymity.
Corruption is not new to sports. It is a way of life in India. The combination is a deadly mix. The IOA’s Wednesday election is illegal. Mr Ajay Singh Chautala, the freshly-minted head of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (and widely seen as Suresh Kalmadi’s man) and Mr Lalit Bhanot, among others, have decided to brazen it out. For the IOA and its supporters, charges do not mean guilty, guilty does not mean jail term, jail term means bail, bail means innocent till proven guilty and innocent till proven guilty means at least one full term in the Lok Sabha. “They don’t understand how things work here”, a bewildered Mr Chautala told the media claiming that there was no official notification from the IOC. After his election, he told reporters he would resign if corruption charges against him are proved and he would appeal to the government to intervene and bring the IOC around to understand our way of conducting free and fair elections. Cricket does not come to mind, the oxymoron – honest elections – does.
The IOC’s verdict means that the new office bearers of the IOA should be kicked out by us, Indians. Our suspension comes at a time when our nascent world of sports was just beginning to acquire new meaning and respect. Henceforth, the IOA will not receive any funds from the international body and Indian officials will be banned from Olympic events and meetings. Indian athletes will be barred from competing in Olympic events under the tri-color. They will walk instead under the Olympic flag. “This crisis can be an opportunity”, says BVP Rao, National Convenor for Clean Sports India, a civil society group that brings together athletes and others calling for the IOA to clean up its act. “Stop Kalmadi, Save Indian Sports” was one of their campaigns. Others are calling this a wake-up call for the IOA and Indian sports. How do you awaken people who are awake? We have another problem – the massive and not-so-subtle mummy-daddy track which ensures that what talent cannot establish, money can.
Synchronisation of rules – in our case the Sports Bill and the Olympic Charter – is not rocket science. Over the past two decades, many national chapters and governments have worked together to align themselves with IOC rules which serves as a baseline for governance. Reporting on sports events has grown with the democratisation of games, and questions about doping and the role of money are questions as live as records set by athletes. There is new language, new aspirations and hope in the world of sport, something that the IOA pretends to not understand. The current tension between Lausanne and Delhi dates back to the Commonwealth Games when the art and craft of deal making and fixing was carried out by Mr Suresh Kalmadi and his associate Mr Bhanot (both of whom have served jail sentences) under full international glare. As president of the IOA, Kalmadi broke, violated and erased rules to keep himself and his friends in warm and plum posts, travelled the world and lectured about the rise of Indian sports before landing in jail and walking out on bail. The IOA has ensured that sports in India dies a slow and painful death as the Indian government sways to the tune of fixers and thieves for whom self interest precedes national interest. Winning an IOA election is more important than going for that gold.
This is a particularly bad time to scoff at ethics and accountability. In the past, some IOC leaders have been eye-sores too, but times and means of detection have changed and the current dispensation is applying the rule book across the board. Historically, Switzerland is home to almost all sporting federations and associations ranging from FIFA to cycling (UIC), the IOC and Basketball, to name a few. The football federation has not been beyond the pale of election-fixing and doping is a sword that hangs over most athletes. The Lance Armstrong story which stripped the cycling god of seven Tours de France titles almost industrialised doping and other illegal methods has destroyed the credibility of the Aigle-based cycling union. Neither governments, nor associations can be expected to slay the goose that lays the golden eggs. Athletes and the media have their role cut out in clearing space for good and healthy competition.
“Every opportunity to clean up the system has to be seized with both hands. Together, we have to break the stranglehold of money and sports”, says Flavio Rota, Swiss National Champion (gymnastics). “Ethics, rigour and discipline are very integral to sports and we have to shift the debate away from money”, he added. It is not uncommon for governments to bid for major international events while at the same time ignoring national federations. The Swiss government, for example, has set aside CHF 1 billion for Davos’s bid for 2022 Winter Olympics. But the country has to vote on that proposal, thus ensuring that the process is transparent and democratic.
The big difference between us and other countries is that despite corruption and nepotism, others are steadily increasing their medal tally while we write articles and shout on television in what can only be called manufactured outrage about why a country of over a billion is stuck with a lonely gold. More importantly, we scoff at opportunities to raise the bar of accountability and transparency.
Thanks in large part to cricket, corruption-free sports is a mirage in India. Perpetual victims, we are stuck in a frozen frame of same people, same arguments, same failures and same accusations for generations while the world is trying to move on. As slaps go, the IOC’s decision is in the league of the Chinese army general who recently handed out little envelopes to our pilots as a thank you gesture. While we claimed it was a ploy, a new definition of shame had emerged. We should invent a sport every four years so we can write our own rules, change them at will and fix our wins. The Parliament comes to mind. The game can be called shame to shame.
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