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No Book To Play By

You have to give the devil his due. Cricket is still the best run sport in the country,” states Vimal Kumar, a former chief coach of the national badminton team. The remark, coming a year after cricket witnessed its worst phase — betting allegations against several franchise owners of the Indian Premier League — may sound ironic, but is not entirely untrue.

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What is unequivocal is the inefficacy of the country’s sport administration. Jiji Thomson, director general, Sports Authority of India (SAI) — government’s nodal agency for sports — minces no words in saying that the few strong performances that India records in Olympics are only because of individual brilliance and not any organisational excellence.

In fact, India almost lost the chance to be represented at the Sochi Winter Games (SWG) earlier this year with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) refusing to submit to its parent’s diktat — to drop tainted officials from its board — until the last minute. In fact, five Indian athletes had to compete under the flag of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) until IOA dissolved the board that comprised officials accused of corruption in the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) and elected a new board. 

While sports is falling apart, a sports code — a law to bring some semblance of accountability — is languishing in on the website of the sports ministry. The government pumps in over Rs 100 crore a year on average, but SAI doesn’t have much say in the way the funds are utilised.

The Family Business
In mid-2012, John Kharshiing, president of the Meghalaya Amateur Boxing Federation, wanted to contest the elections at the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF). His application was rejected, on technical grounds, he was told. But what happened in the general meeting during the elections was bizarre, to says the least. “Within 40 minutes, the election process was completed.  The newly appointed president read out a list of names from a piece of paper and called for people to propose and second their names as office bearers. Dissenters did not have a voice. Several office bearers, including the newly appointed vice-president, Asit Banerjee, resigned in protest,” Kharshiing recounts. Again, when Abhay Singh Chautala, who headed IABF for a full term of 12 years, could not re-contest the elections after the government refused further extension, his brother-in-law was made the president, and a new post was created, making him the chairman.
Some of the politicianswho are also sports administrators
• V. K. Malhotra - Archery
• Akhilesh Das Gupta - Badminton
• Abhishek Matoria - Boxing
• Praful Patel - Football
• Raninder Singh - Shooting
• Digamber Kamat - Swimming
The following salient points have been proposed in the new sports Bill:
• Submission of annual accounts to be made mandatory
• Proper election of sport bodies through an election commission for sports
• An ethics commission to enforce the code of ethics in sports
• Speedy redressal of grievances through a sports apellate tribunal
• Measures to pr
event doping, age fraud, fixing, etc.
This, however, didn’t go unnoticed. The Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) and the then sports ministry came down heavily on IABF, banning it for discrepancies in the election process. Even the athletes felt the heat. Indian boxers, including two Olympic medallists, who were first allowed to play under the international body’s flag, were subsequently stripped off the special privilege. Despite the ban, no elected members budged from their positions. The ban was withdrawn recently.

The IABF episode underscores the pressing need to implement the sport’s code with immediate effect. B.V.P. Rao, national convener of Clean Sports India — a movement to rid sports of corruption — and a member of the drafting committee of the sports code, says the code tries to attack the root of the problem — stage-managed elections, indifference towards athletes and a complete lack of transparency and accountability.
Wayward Associations
On 8 December 2013, the day Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party won the Delhi assembly elections, besides eternal optimists, sports enthusiasts too had reason to cheer. The IOA agreed to bar corrupt officials (including Suresh Kalmadi, Lalit Bhanot, as well as the Chautala brothers — Ajay and Abhay Singh) from participating in fresh elections, as demanded by the IOC.

Everybody wanted them out, including the government, the sports fraternity, the public, et all. In fact, it is surprising how they managed to cling on to their office for so long despite a strong opposition. The answer lies in the way sports has carved out its own autonomy globally, keeping out all political interferences. Posing as a unifying factor among nations, the Olympic charter mandates the government of any country from interfering in sports administration.

National Olympic bodies like the IOA have to work under the international parent council, which, in turn, lords over each individual sport in the country. The international parent, however, rarely flexes its muscles, which means that the administrators have a free hand, as long as minor niggles are taken care off.

Rahul Mehra, a Supreme Court advocate who handles several cases for sportsmen, says manipulation of elections starts with the voters list. “The electoral college is not determined and declared. There is no effective redressal internally. The handpicked returning officers are mostly pliable. Election, as we saw in the case of IABF, was just by show of hands, and not a secret ballot,” he says. The sports code has provisions that mandate a voters’ list and an election commissioner to conduct the process.

Elections at the Yachting Association of India (YAI) were conducted only after a legal battle in the Delhi High Court. Chetan Fernandes, a former Asian Games medallist, says that players who have fallen out of the association’s favour are kept out of the administration by refusing to renew their memberships. According to a YAI communiqué to such applicants, their membership applications were rejected as their conduct was ‘noted to be injurious to the character/interests of the YAI. Captain Ajay Narang, life member of YAI, speaking to BW on behalf of the association, explains that their conduct was offensive because the players in question complained about the goings-on at the association to SAI. “Membership to the YAI is not a matter of right, but a privilege,” says Narang, adding that the constitution allows membership to be allowed or denied on the basis of conduct, in the eyes of the secretary general.

This highlights the next problem. Players are completely at the whims of the administrators. A few years ago, Brig. Manchanda, a former national squash champion who was appointed by the government to oversee the sport, wrote a damning report about the treatment of players by squash administrators. He wrote about how Joshana Chinnappa was banned for a year at the age of 12, and branded a liar by the secretary general of The Squash Racquets Federation of India N. Ramachandran, who is currently the president of the Indian Olympic Association. He also mentioned the case of 13-year-old Dipika Pallikal, who was not allowed to participate in the World Games (in the senior category) because she was considered too young to undertake international travel, while the same federation sent her to the World Junior Championship just two years ago. An email sent to Ramachandran requesting an interview went unanswered.

Squash in India is said to be run out of Tamil Nadu, where Ramachandran, brother of former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) N. Srinivasan, rules the roost. Several players complain that they have been ostracised because they had not enrolled at the India Cements Squash Academy in Chennai.

Take the case of Gurpreet Pal Singh. A chess player, who hasn’t played competitively in over two years as he is virtually banned by the All India Chess Federation (AICF). His mistake was to participate in a tournament organised by a rival federation, the Chess Association of India. Following which, AICF started pulling down his rating. He was also asked to return all the prize money he had received playing in AICF tournaments. The AICF didn’t stop at that, it also wrote to Singh’s employer, Indian Railways, to bar him from representing them. He cannot play internationally now as the AICF refuses to ‘rate’ him — such a rating is required for international acceptance.

The 38-year-old from Delhi has been working with Indian Railways for 17 years now. He got the job through sports quota. But he is now refused all facilities, including off-days for practice, that come with a sports quota job, he says. Recently, he was also refused a no-objection certificate for a private tournament that he participated in. “The Railways asked me to take a leave as they did not want to antagonise the federation, and thereby impact its other players too,” he says.

Thoroughly frustrated, he approached the Competition Commission of India (CCI) against the ‘abuse of dominance’ by the federation. While the director general at CCI ordered an investigation into the federation’s operations, nothing much has happened since. Twelve months later, the case is yet to come up for consideration.

More recently, Jwala Gutta, one of India’s top ranked badminton doubles players, was wrongfully banned for life for allegedly causing a delay in an Indian Badminton League (IBL) fixture for about 20 minutes. Says Vimal Kumar: “Players will be players. When they feel wronged, they will speak up. It is the administration that has to take a step back.” The ban was revoked after Gutta sought legal recourse.

This is where the sports code could come in handy. As proposed, under the code, a sports appellate tribunal will be set up — along the lines of a securities appellate tribunal and the national green tribunal — that will exclusively hear cases of sport-related disputes.

Players often end up being the victim in any tussle between the top guns of the game. Hockey — the sport in which India has had most of its Olympic successes in the past with eight gold medals — is an example. The sport was dogged by the power struggle between the CWG scam accused Suresh Kalmadi, who wanted to bring hockey within his dominion, and K.P.S. Gill, who was running the sport till a few years ago, according to hockey historian K. Arumugam.

FORALMOST 14 months, India ran a serious threat of being suspended from the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first put its foot down in December 2012, when the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) refused to keep tainted officials away from sport. For a year, the two bodies stood eye to eye, the IOA arguing that under Indian laws, officials were innocent unless proved guilty by a a court of law. Finally, it was the Indian association which blinked. With public support ebbing, and the threat of disaffliation looming, the likes of Suresh Kalmadi and Abhay Singh Chautala decided to give in to the IOC’s demands. Elections were heli in February 2012, with N. Ramachandran — brother of former cricket boss N. Srinivasan — being made head. India’s suspension was removed immediately.

Gill wasn’t particularly endearing to the hockey fraternity; in his 14-year tenure he conducted just three nationals and was constantly at loggerheads with the Federation for International Hockey (FIH), which tirelessly worked towards promoting the sport in the country. The FIH had even obtained funds for the Indian Hockey Development Project to promote Indian hockey after players from the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004, he says.

Kalmadi exploited the situation by getting IOA to dissolve the IHF managing committee. What he didn’t anticipate was Sahara group’s interest in IHF. Soon, Sahara had the support of 90 per cent of the voting associations, and Kalmadi was forced to cancel re-elections, according to Arumugam. Unsuccessful in his quest, Kalmadi had IOA’s member associations (at the state level) form their own hockey association that was combined under a national federation called Hockey India (HI). And with FIH’s approval to HI, IHF was marginalised.

That’s when the IHF floated an Indian Premier League (IPL) like hockey league called the World Series Hockey (WSH). With big money at stake, several players signed up. Enraged at this, HI ensured that those who played for the WSH were not called for Team India selection. According to Arumugam, half of India’s senior players and up to 90 per cent of the junior strength suddenly found themselves out of favour with the ‘official body’, and out of Team India. With depleted and fractured bench strength, the team could hardly hold its own in matches.

Despite severe afflictions, players are often mute spectators. Protests are nipped in the bud by vindication. “Indians by nature are taught to be respectful to their elders and teachers,” explains Baichung Bhutia, India’s most successful football player. “That attitude carries on to the sports pitch too, where they accept a level of harassment as a given,” he adds.

Not Many Takers
The third major change the sports code could bring in is accountability. If the code is implemented, all sports associations will be covered by the Right to Information Act, which would require them to prepare and file accounts with the government annually. Also, the associations will have to be run by professional managers. It’s easy to see why the new law has no takers. Most sports associations are run by politicians.

More often than not, the camaraderie among politicians at the top of sport administrations cuts across party lines. There are examples galore in cricket — J&K’s former chief minister Farooq Abdullah works as the head of the state association, while Sharad Pawar has gotten himself back in the game as Maharashtra’s representative in the BCCI.

There is another reason why politicians are lording over these associations. John Kharshiing says that he conducted a national championship at the sub-junior level, for which he ran up a bill of Rs 40 lakh. With no sponsors ready to come on board for a low-profile tournament, he had to ring up his contacts to raise funds. For politician, that’s never an issue. “Politicians are able to use their clout with well-heeled sponsors to their advantage, and for this, corporate India has to share the blame,” says Bhutia.

It is easy to see merit in Kumar’s remark about cricket. You might not agree with the way he uses his power, but Srinivasan is known for his administrative abilities. It is widely known that while he was with the BCCI, it never missed any payment due to lack of funds. “The answer is to ensure that associations are run like professional bodies,” says Rakesh Khanna, a director at non-profit sports foundation Olympic Gold Quest and a co-founder of the finance group Ambit-RSM. “Sports administrators must be able to demonstrate their contribution through the impact they have on players,” he say.

The sports code also limits the number of terms a person can stay in an elected position — this probably is the code’s most controversial provision. “There is no reason why the same administrator has to remain in charge for several terms,” states Kumar. “We need new officials who will bring in fresh ideas, because the system needs change,” he says.

Chinks In The Armour
India is not short of talent, says Bhutia, pointing out that Indians are genetically similar to Brazilians. Neither is money a real problem. This year, the government alone is expected to spend around Rs 200 crore on sports through SAI; then there are the private sponsors and organisations like OGQ. The problem is that money often doesn’t reach talent.

SAI’s Thomson narrates a recent experience in Palakkad district of Kerala, which routinely throws up children with potential who, however, often lose steam later. He met the parents of some of them, and pleaded with them to use the Trivandrum facility of SAI, where they would not only get scientific support, but all expenses including those for education would be borne by the government. But their local coaches didn’t allow. The reason is obvious. They didn’t want to lose their moment of fame (and cash award)— if a child manages to sparkle at the state or national level, his coach also stands to gain.

Sports administrators work above the law given their autonomous nature
• There are hardly any laws to govern sports administrators. In fact, sports is usually self-governing the world over and interference by courts and governments is frowned upon
• There is no room for dissent. Constitutions of sports associations lay down that disputes cannot be taken to a civil court. Remedy is usually arbitration. And the arbitrator is appointed by the association
• Elections often become a farce, in the absence of a voters’ list or secret ballot
• There is no code of ethics. Nothing prevents chargesheeted officials from contesting

Then, there is the problem of timely payment. Players from several disciplines complain of a lack of payment, while associations specifically raise funds to reimburse their expenses incurred while representing India abroad.

Within SAI, there may be many skeletons lurking in the closet. The director general fears that many among the 15,000 athletes on the rolls may be dummies, appointed by local coaches eager to make money. “It is a murky world that requires a Hercules to clean it up,” says Thomson.

A Hercules is unlikely. But a strong law can help sanitise the environment. The fate of the sports Bill is uncertain. The biggest resistance comes from politicians, mainly the cricket lobby. Says Kumar, “When the sports minister consulted us, we advised him to keep non-Olympic sports such as cricket out of the purview of the code, just so the Bill could pass smoothly.”

But it stayed on the draft. And that could be the single biggest reason why the Bill went into cold-storage. “The minister may have had good intentions, but he met the wrong people,” says Kumar, in conclusion.
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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-07-2014)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Abraham C Mathews

The author is an Advocate, practicing in Delhi, and a Chartered Accountant

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