IOC is wrong: Problem is IOA monopoly, not govt meddling

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) decision to derecognise the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is widely seen as a blow to the country’s prestige and a comment on the way sport is run in this country.

The reason for the suspension is simply this: the IOC wanted the IOA elections postponed since they seemed to be influenced by the government, including its sports code. The elections which the IOA refused to postpone had been mandated by the Delhi High Court, and hence the IOC can hardly claim jurisdiction over it.

But, in any event, the IOC’s official reason for derecognition – government interference - is antiquated and a load of bull. More so since what it dislikes about the IOA is not the real murkiness of the latter’s politics, but the government’s efforts to set it right.

The IOC wanted the IOA elections postponed since they seemed to be influenced by the government, including its sports code. AFP

As an editorial in today’s Business Standard notes: “You would imagine that when the IOC complains about government interference in the IOA, it means that it worries that politicians like Mr (Abhay Singh) Chautala lead the association, and that its other members are chosen by voting from sports associations controlled by various other politicians, sometimes for decades. Actually, that’s not the problem at all. The problem is that the IOC didn’t like the Indian government’s attempts to fix this situation and get powerful politicians out of sports administration.”

Quite. Blinded by its own flawed charter that mandates autonomy for Olympic sports associations, the IOC is unable to see that in almost every country politicians and governments have a big role to play. Leave alone the likes of China, where sport is seen as a politically-important area for intervention, even in non-totalitarian states like Australia, sporting excellence is largely state-driven.

Australia’s great performance at the Olympics and Asian Games is the result of a massive state-sponsored intervention in 1981 to build excellence through the Australian Institute of Sport.

So, the mere fact that a local Olympic association is influenced by politicians and governments can hardly be the reason for the IOC to derecognise the IOA. You cannot separate sports from politics in most countries of the world. Politicians can, do and will interfere in this area whether the IOC likes it or not.

The only difference, though, is that some countries meddle with finesse, and others in a ham-handed way.

Exhibit A in the latter category is the IOA. Any organisation which has the likes of Suresh Kalmadi, Lalit Bhanot and Abhay Singh Chautala associated with it – the first two being former jailbirds – cannot but besmirch Indian sport.

But then, one can hardly single out the IOA for this criticism. The richest sports association in India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), is no paragon of virtue when it comes to political interference or skulduggery. One of its former leading lights, Lalit Modi, creator of the money-spinning Indian Premier League (IPL), is still outside the country fearing arrest for some of the things he may have done when he was the IPL’s supreme head and commissioner.

Not only BCCI, but even state-level cricket associations have politicians associated with them – and they are there not for the love of sport, but the lucre and recognition that comes with it.

The IOC is thus fighting a losing battle by trying to keep governments out of Olympic associations, just like it lost the battle to keep professional players out of the Olympics some decades ago. At the top level, all sport is now professional. And all sport is big money.

The IOC’s charter, which forbids a role for government in Olympics associations, is wrong because this is not the real problem. This is not what is keeping the best and the brightest from competing for honours at the Olympics. It is because the IOA is the only body that can allow you to represent the country.

The real problem is thus monopoly. This is what gives IOA its power, and governments their say. Just as the International Cricket Council (ICC) allows only the BCCI to send an India team, and thus restricts the availability of talent coming into international cricket, the IOC is promoting an IOA monopoly at the Olympics – when the opposite is what we need.

If the IOC allows many sports bodies from every country to nominate sportspersons for the Olympics, then whether one body is meddled with by the government or not will not matter. This will allow private bodies and trusts to empanel themselves with the IOC (based on some basic rules). All sportspersons people chosen by these bodies can be allowed to represent the country, and not just those sent by the IOA.

Allowing multiple IOAs will break the hold of politicians in the business because it automatically lowers the prestige and money associated with any one IOA. In fact, the only way IOA will retain its clout is by producing genuine medal winners – and this means investing in sportspeople and training, and not administrators.

Consider the case of the BCCI. As long as it has a monopoly in India, cricket can never improve since the powers in the board earn thousands of crores by doing nothing. They don’t even need to produce great cricketers – as the abysmal performance of the current Indian Test team against England shows.

The BCCI is interested only in the money it can make from cricket; it is not interested in growing the cricket franchise and developing truly world-class cricketers. Sure, we do have some world-class cricketers, but none of them owe any thanks to the BCCI. They came up on their own.

Just as Indian cricket would benefit if the ICC allows India to build many more cricket teams (UK has three, so why should we not have a Bharat XI or even a Maharashtra XI), one wonders why India should not have a Bharat Olympic Association and a Hindustan Olympic Association apart from the IOA running its Olympics challenge.

The message for the IOC is simple: don’t fret about the IOA, and whether there is too much government interference in it or not. Allow other Indian organisations to send contingents from India, and the IOA start to work professionally. There’s nothing like competition to focus minds.

Advertisement