Hyderabad: The courts have got it all mixed up. How else does one explain why matters that should be resolved on the badminton court are now landing up in a judicial court.
The Mumbai High court today raised questions about how India's national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand who also heads the selection panel is running a private training academy named after himself in Hyderabad. Observing that it is "not ethical and in the interest of justice", the court has asked the Badminton Association of India to respond.
The judges stepped on the badminton turf because one of the players, Prajakta Sawant had gone to court alleging that Gopichand was "mentally harassing her by not allowing her to participate in a training camp in Hyderabad'". The tone and tenor of her case suggested that she felt that Gopi was out to ruin her career by promoting only those players who train at his academy.
Prajakta was the national women doubles champion in 2010 and 2011 and also won the mixed doubles title in 2010. But a change of home team from Maharastra to Andhra Pradesh and back to Maharastra and frequent change of partners proved to be an unsettling experience. Not surprisingly, success has eluded the 20-year-old in the last year. The bitterness and anguish and her belief that Gopi does not have her best interests at heart, is what culminated in her dragging him to court.
When this matter erupted in the public domain last month, Prajakta received support from Jwala Gutta. India's top doubles player raised questions about the former All-England champion running his own academy, calling it a "conflict of interest". She even questioned why players are being selected on the basis of which academy they are playing for and not on the basis of their talent. Today she went one step further and called Indian badminton "a one-man show".
How fair is that charge? Let us look at the Indian contingent to the London Olympics. The five players who wore Indian colours were Saina Nehwal, P Kashyap, Jwala Gutta, V Diju and Ashwini Ponnappa. Yes, all five of them train at the academy in Hyderabad but then can we ignore the fact that they are also the best and highest-ranked in the country. Was there another player who was ignored by Gopi in his avatar as selector-cum-national coach to accommodate these players from his own academy?
If you visit Gopichand's academy, you would hear more players speaking Malayalam than Telugu, such is the number of players from Kerala. Madhya Pradesh has sent a significant number of players to Gopichand Academy. They are all players who have excelled in their regions and have moved to Gopi's academy as it is the only institution in India where they can take that critical step forward and hone their skills further. The academy is in fact recognised as an institute of excellence by the World Badminton Federation. It is not a local shop where Telugu players get preferential treatment.
As a player, Gopi suffered because he never had quality sparring partners. His search took him from Hyderabad to Bangalore and Germany. Gopi's mantra as a coach is that unless you have the best available to test your game, you cannot progress. He believes there is little use in good talent practising in their own backyard against inferior players. The academy gives the 150 players the chance to match up against the best in India.
In this context, it is unfortunate that Gopi's integrity is being questioned. Yes, theoretically you could argue that there is a conflict of interest but then you also perhaps need to see if you have a better person to do the job of national coach or even a selector. Is there any other player in India who has excelled at the highest level and then also brought home an Olympic medal as coach?
It is also strange that Gopi's twin positions are being called a conflict of interest so late in the day. Gopi's academy has been in existence since 2004 and predates his appointment as the national coach by two years. Surely everyone in Indian badminton could not have suffered collective amnesia for six years. Prajakta's case is now in court and the BAI will have to take cognizance of the High court's rap on Gopi's knuckles.
Why is it all coming up now? Talking to several big names in the world of Indian badminton, many of who do not wish to be quoted, seems to indicate that Prajakta's shoulder is being used to fire at Gopi.
That Jwala and Gopi do not enjoy the best of relations is the worst kept secret in Indian badminton. Jwala, along with Chetan Anand had a spat with Gopi in 2007 when the two players wanted to take part in international tournaments so that they had enough points to qualify for the Beijing Olympics while Gopi wanted all India prospects to train together at his academy and not merely mark attendance at international tournaments with first or second round exits.
Even as recently as before the London Olympics, Jwala and Ashwini trained separately with Gopi's former coach, S M Arif, something Gopi chose to accept.
Goverdhan Reddy, who coached Saina Nehwal during her formative years also questions the recent appointment of Gopi as advisor to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), pointing out that while Gopi's knowledge of the sport is unquestionable, the interest of his academy could clash with national interest.
It is unfortunate that Gopi, who has kept silent through this entire controversy, has let things come to such a pass. Now that the High court has questioned his integrity as selector, he should immediately choose between his two positions. He has created a fine institution in Hyderabad and it has to be his first priority since this gurukul will churn out world-class talent for India. To suggest that what is in the interest of the academy will not be in national interest is a preposterous argument to make. The BAI can find someone else to be the national coach and selector.
The BAI also has to take part of the blame for its failure to settle differences and prevent players from washing dirty linen in public. It has allowed the integrity of one of India's most celebrated sportspersons to be questioned. The sooner it settles the issue off court, the better it will be for Indian badminton.
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