For Hosathu

I was agreeably surprised when Dr G Ramakrishna, intellectual and left-wing ideologue, called me a few days ago seeking a feature for his magazine Hosathu. For one, Hosathu is a left-wing political/ literary Kannada magazine which rarely, if ever, carries anything on sports. But the year-end special issue is carrying one feature on Indian sport, and he wanted me to contribute.

I’ve been a fan of Dr GR ever since I saw him speak at an anti-Iraq War rally that I participated in. That was 2001 or so. I’ve made it a point to visit his home every few months, and our conversations have gone on for hours. He has made a huge difference in the way I think, and in my personal philosophy. The best thing about him is that despite his vast scholarship — he was a professor of English, but as a Sanskrit scholar has a special interest in the Rig Veda — he retains a childlike curiosity in all matters. He is also not reluctant to explain issues to those below his depth of scholarship. Dr GR is of a generation of Bangalore teachers who live idealistically, putting the pursuit of knowledge as their one and only goal. He always speaks with a smile playing on his lips, and a twinkle in his eyes. Even in the dark days of the NDA government, when communalism was at its zenith, he managed to retain his humour. I remember one evening when both of us wondered how long things were going to spiral out of control.

I don’t like to define myself as a ‘leftist’, even though I have left-wing sympathies. I don’t like to align myself with any political ideology at all. The Left are no angels themselves, as the history of pogroms in the former USSR and present-day China shows. Closer home, we had Nandigram, where the Left-backed police violently suppressed villagers protesting the acquisition of their land for industry.
Still, I think the Left presents the only meaningful alternative to the rabid right-wingers whose rhetoric belongs to the Middle Ages, and not in the 21st century.

Anyway, here is the piece I wrote for Hosathu.

Crisis and Mismanagement in the World of Sports

In 1997, leading a revolt against the Badminton Association of India, one of India’s great sports icons discovered he had stepped into quicksand. The rebellion was against the office-bearers of the association, each of who had spent two decades or more in power; Padukone hoped to create an alternate association and circuit which rewarded only merit. However, the rebel Indian Badminton Confederation lasted just four months.

Later, Padukone would talk of how those four months had been a nightmare. The IBC was threatened with derecognition and its players – many employed in state-owned companies — of losing their jobs. Telephone calls came from shadowy figures in the sports ministry and state-owned oil companies, daring the IBC to go ahead. Padukone fell into depression and a compromise with the ruling association was signed.

That event describes everything that is wrong with Indian sport. It was as if a vast underground machinery had sprung to life. The machinery, so far not bothered as the sport hurtled from one disaster to another, awoke Kumbhakarna-like after a prodigious spell of sleep.

This is recognizable in most spheres of Indian life, but we have grown so inured to it that it doesn’t seem remarkable. But in most spheres of Indian life, and especially in politics, there is a certain logic that attracts rogues and other lowlife; but what is it about sport that attracts similar characters?

A recent book titled ‘Olympics: The India Story’ by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta answers many questions we’ve long had about Indian sport. India’s early encounter with Olympism defined much of what transpired later. In the early years, for a country under an imperial power, the only people who could afford to travel overseas and represent its cause at international bodies such as the International Olympic Association were moneyed royalty. Thus it was that figures like the Maharaja of Patiala became influential as patrons and representatives of the Indian cause – and the pattern was cemented after independence because the erstwhile royalty, now deprived of their ancestral privileges, sought spheres of influence where they could parade their status. Sport thus became a refuge for the unlikeliest figures such as the erstwhile elite and ambitious politicians.

This meant that the figure of authority was in sport not for its sake, but to fulfill other ambitions. Over the years, some problems got entrenched in the system, and could be classified under these heads: undemocratic officialdom and nepotism; the overage menace; drugs; and infrastructure.

Sports federations are registered under the Societies Act and are government-funded. In theory, they are supposed to be democratic bodies, with representatives drawn from state associations, which themselves have district representatives, and so on. The district bodies are supposed to have club representatives. In practice, the structure has no foundation – that is, most of these fundamental units (the clubs) don’t exist, and sprout on paper when a member seeks to be elected to the higher body. Apart from this, the functioning of nearly every national sports federation is questionable: general body meetings are not held on time, minutes not recorded, and elections rigged. One of the few exceptions is the Karnataka Badminton Association, which is so well run that it has a surplus of funds, and 30 per cent (this year it amounted to Rs 30 lakh) of the association’s revenues has been earmarked for badminton development outside Bangalore. The KBA has helped fund the construction of courts at Mandya and Belgaum, and has even provided scholarship for junior players. One such beneficiary is Aditya Prakash from Mandya, who is in the Indian junior team. Those who seek to improve sports administration in Karnataka could study this association.

In most other cases, the functioning of a sports association is in keeping with our zamindari traditions, for it is a privilege and enjoins absolutely no responsibility and no term of office. Officialdom is generally for life – Suresh Kalmadi (athletics, 19 years), KPS Gill (hockey, 15 years), Digvijay Singh (shooting, 20 years), Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi (Football, 19 years) are prime examples. The bye-laws of each federation are modified to suit its office-bearers. The zamindari style of functioning is a powerful magnet and a parallel career for politicians, because officialdom comes with all-expenses paid trips overseas and a bunch of serfs (junior officials and sportsmen). A reformation of the system would involve examining the provisions under which national federations are affiliated to the Sports Ministry. The Societies Act allows too much autonomy to sports federations.

This, then, is Indian sport’s biggest challenge. All the other problems accrue from this.

Infrastructure: The lack of world-class infrastructure was long believed to have hampered India’s performances, and that is true. Training at pebbly grounds is vastly different from performing on synthetic turf. However, given the boom in the economy over the last decade, and a general clamour for higher investment in sport, the government has invested in high-quality ‘sports cities’ at Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune and other places. But a ‘sports city’ engages only one imagination of sport – that of the competitive sportsperson. Infrastructure for sport as recreation, especially for the non-competitive citizen, is non-existent. Sports cities are exclusive enclaves, walled off and guarded, and the average citizen is prohibited entry unless there is an event. This is the new direction in which sports investment is heading. Sports cities are also money- and energy-guzzlers – and while the sports cities of Gachibowli in Hyderabad and Balewadi in Pune are world-class, one is unsure of how well they will be maintained in five or ten years’ time. Sports cities are grand symbols of government achievement, and they do encourage competitive sportsmen, but the return on investment is negligible, and they do little to make sport an activity for lay people. Instead, it would have been better to invest in smaller sports complexes outside of the sports cities, and make them accessible to the public.

The overage menace: Parents of junior players submit false age certificates to prove they are younger than they actually are, in order to win junior tournaments and hence ensure ‘sports quota’ seats in professional courses. This harms children who lose to the overage competitors and lose their motivation to stay in the sport. The current method to prevent this is to conduct bone tests, but organizers are generally selective in handing out punishment. An easier option would be to maintain an online database which displays a player’s profile as soon as he/she registers as a player at the junior level. At the moment, the age-proof certificate may be either a letter from the school or panchayat, or even a random affidavit – which helps players change their age two or three times.

The drug menace: Newspapers have frequently reported on used syringes and vials lying around at the venues of national-level tournaments. At the junior level, doping is to improve one’s performance to ensure a medal and hence a government job; at the higher level it is part of a more organised programme, sometimes state-sponsored.

Apart from these systemic issues, there are some social issues as well. Perhaps the biggest challenge for sports enthusiasts is to find open spaces in urban and semi-urban areas and take to sport as a recreational activity, and not just as a competitive activity. The lack of open space means that even children who take to indoor sports like badminton, squash, table tennis, etc, have fundamental problems with balance and natural fitness. One coach was ruing the fact that children these days always go outdoors in shoes, and have lost a feel for the ground. Perhaps a study needs to be done on the advantages of playing barefoot on open earth, compared to well-protected feet playing over even, man-made surfaces. Many sports coaches – those who have grown up in the countryside especially – believe that we have underestimated the advantages of natural childhood activity like tree climbing, swimming in ponds and rivers, hop-scotch, etc, in the development of fitness.

Another cause for concern is the rapid decline of traditional centres of fitness, such as the garadimanes of Karnataka, the kalaris of Kerala and the akharas of north India. Fitness is now taken to mean pumping iron in a modern gym. In Kerala, visuals of kalaripayattu are used to promote tourist brochures of ‘God’s Own Country’, but no dialogue on fitness in the media even mentions kalari as a possible fitness discipline. As a result, an art so rich and complete does not have middle class endorsement.

These are then some of the common issues in Indian sports. One must add, however, that the current generation of Indian sportsman is a different breed from earlier generations. One detects greater confidence; he is no longer in awe of foreign athletes, because their lifestyle, dress, or glitzy cities no more prick his self-confidence. Training methods and diets of international achievers are well known and followed rigorously; the last ten years have seen a globalization of sport. This confidence also helps them to look outside of the associations for funding – a good example being Abhinav Bindra, who funded his own training in Germany, and went on to win gold in the shooting event at the Beijing Olympics. Indian sport has been so far down in the dumps that the only way is up.

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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