Once again the administrators of Indian sport have shown they are unable to see past their own noses. The suspension of the Indian Olympic Association by the International Olympic Committee over government interference in its elections is not only a resounding slap on the face for the country, but a result of an attitude that places administrators above athletes.
For months the IOA has been acting as if the IOC’s threat to suspend it for holding elections under India’s National Sports Code was nothing but empty words. No attempts were made by the acting president, VK Malhotra, to meet with either the IOC or the government to come up with a solution to the impasse.
It was only when the IOC announced last week that it would propose suspension at its meeting today that the IOA swung into action and decided to send two of its members to Switzerland to present its side of things. At the same time, the organization saw fit to elect Lalit Bhanot, who is being tried on graft charges relating to the Commonwealth Games, as its secretary general.
Unsurprisingly, the IOC refused to grant the IOA an audience and went ahead with the suspension.
To be fair, there is plenty of blame to go around. The government’s insistence that the elections be held under the Sports Code, while an admirable attempt to bring order and transparency to the functioning of India’s sports associations, was the cause of the friction with the IOC. The Delhi High Court order ruling that the elections be held under the Sports Code made it impossible for the IOA to act otherwise without violating the law of the land.
But the government’s role serves only to obscure the real problem: that India’s sporting administrators, who also tend to be politicians, still see sports as their private fiefdoms, free of accountability. Suresh Kalmadi was the president of the IOA for 16 years before he was forced to step down because of the scandal over the Commonwealth Games. Malhotra, who is 80 years old, has been head of the Archery Association of India for three decades. They are used to functioning in whatever way they please without anyone questioning them.
The logical approach to the situation would have been to suspend the elections until the issue was resolved. But neither Malhotra nor Abhay Singh Chautala, the newly elected president, were willing to take that step. Instead, they banked on the IOC blinking first and went ahead with their plans regardless. That assumption has now come back to bite them.
There could still be a silver lining to this mess, however. While the suspension means India’s athletes cannot compete in Olympic events under the Indian flag (the IOC could allow them to do so under the Olympic flag), things are unlikely to reach that point. The move is aimed primarily at goading the IOA to put its house in order, which presents an opportunity for change. The government should cut out the middleman – in this case the IOA – and sit down with the IOC to explain why the Sports Code is necessary and resolve any differences between the requirements of the IOC charter and the government’s regulations. Most countries around the word have sports laws, so there is no reason a compromise cannot be reached. If that were to happen, the satraps running the IOA would have run out of excuses and have to fall in line (that officials will be banned from attending Olympic meetings and events might also have an effect).
The 2012 London Olympics saw India produce its best results ever at the Olympics and the country can ill afford to squander the momentum that has been built starting with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. If our administrators will not adapt, they should be told they will no longer be allowed to stand alongside India’s new sporting ambitions.