This conversation stands out from my first national championships in Bangalore.
“How old are you?” my teammate asked a seeded player.
“Ok which standard are you in?”
Something didn’t add up.
Aware of the fact that the player had already played the national championships for the last two years the next question was, “So how many more years are you going to play in the under-12 age group?”
“My dad says until I win” said the seeded player.
This, unfortunately, is the reality of Indian sport. Be it cricket where the captain of the under-19 squad had to be dropped from the team as he was overage or golf where the category ‘C’ (11-12 years) have 14-year olds teeing off or the suspension of the under-18 hockey national camp for the Asia Cup 2009 after 48 of 53 probables proved overage.
Many a promising sportspersons have suffered because of this acute problem of age fudging. It is a bit much to ask a 11-year-old to stand up to the strength and maturity of a 14-year-old. And more so if the young player knows the age of his opponent and is still helpless. Its psychological as much as it is physiological.
This point is well elaborated in the bestseller ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell, where the author states that in Canadian hockey, the elite group of hockey players consisted of 40 percent of the players being born between January and March. He explains it thus “It has nothing to do with astrology, nor is there anything magical about the first three months of the year. Its simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age class hockey is January 1st. A boy who turns 10 on January 2nd, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year – and at that age, in preadolescence; a twelve month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.”
Physical maturity is just one aspect of the story. What follows makes the equation even more skewed. The opportunities in terms of the selected players being exposed to better coaching, better teammates, more hours of training and more competitions to participate in giving them more confidence and experience is vital. So what essentially starts off as a headstart of a few months, eventually has a snowballing effect with huge benefits.
The difference is that in Canada, the competition is between players who are eligible to play in the age group and still an advantage of a few months is found. In India, we have to deal with ‘eligible’ bearded boys playing the under-12 category. Which means they have an advantage of a couple of years over their unsuspecting younger opponents!
Indian sport has often lost credibility due to this issue. Apart from losing out on genuinely talented sportspersons who have been dejected and frustrated due to this prevalent problem and quit the sport.
Since so much importance is given to the age group tournaments in India, I have in my career witnessed many players who have fudged their age in the junior category, won there and then gone on to represent the country.
Some say that the coaches/academies are to be blamed for the age misrepresentation. Some say it’s the money at stake – players assume a younger age to appear more talented and valuable resulting in heftier contracts. Others say it’s our system wherein knocking of a few years of one’s age at the time of school registration will mean a future with longer years of service in a government job or prospects of a younger spouse. Also, with our rural population not having a formal recording system of one’s date of birth, the same is often unknown and hence unintentionally or intentionally fabricated.
Nowadays, with the tenth board exam passing certificate possessing the date of birth becoming the final and inconvertible record of the date of birth, I suspect that the ‘adjustments’ are done before that.
The Indian authorities were sorely criticised for their inaction as regards to controlling this menace. In 2010, the sports ministry decided to make it mandatory for an athlete to undergo medical tests to determine his/her age. The tests comprise of physical examination, dental tests and x-rays, radiological examination (MRI/CT Scan) of the shoulder and elbow joints, hands with wrist and pelvis with hip joint. They also proposed banning athletes if they had conclusive evidence of any age fraud. Also, the ministry has introduced the National Code Against Age Fraud in Sports to keep a check on those found guilty and punish them.
But the advent of Codes and guidelines are ineffective if not executed appropriately.
Recently, at a national championship, 3 of the 4 semifinalists were medically proven to be overage. Ideally they should have been banned but that would mean scrapping the semifinals. To avoid this embarrassment, the national federation permitted the players to play. The show went on. And all is forgotten by now I suspect.
The medical tests declaring these players over-aged are accused of being anything but scientific and were simply perfunctory examination by the doctor.
If this were true, how do we maintain the sanctity of the sporting world where being overage tantamounts to a crime. How do we provide our budding players a fair chance to showcase their talent and compete in a fair atmosphere? As a country, how do we avoid the embarrassment of being hauled up with over-age issues.
We all understand that cleaning up age records will take time and I am sure that authorities are taking the right steps with increasing the usage of medical tests to verify age in select sporting events. But in the meantime, all of us have to ask this question. Are we missing out on creating sporting greats just because we are unable to provide the needed training and opportunities at the right age because others have fudged their age. And if we are then we are not only depriving those individuals of opportunities to develop but we as a nation are not “upping” our game on the world stage.
Someone said, the controversy over General VK Singh’s age may have ebbed somewhat, but the issue merits revisiting. Age, like so many things in our society, remains a flexible category in the sub-continent. But this is one flexibility that will cost us aplenty.