The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) disqualified Nisar Ahmed — the toast of a hopeful track and field community not too long ago — from running the 100m final in the National Youth Athletics Championships in Raipur earlier this week for being over-age. We do not know yet if there will be any further action beyond the disqualification, but the larger issue comes into focus again.
Each time an ‘age-fraud’ story breaks out, it brings along some familiar questions. Will there be any long-term sanction? Will it lead to penal action to withdrawal of advantages derived by success obtained as an over-aged athlete? Will those affected by having to compete with older and ineligible athletes in age-group competitions be compensated, ever?
Last month, Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) Secretary-General Sahdev Yadav revealed that he had sent home some athletes who were not only over-age as per IWLF records but also arrived in Pune for the Khelo India Youth Games with changed names and proof of dates of birth! The question is: should punishment stop with just being disqualified from the particular event?
We shall address that in a bit.
But first, let us consider the impact the commitment of such fraud has. The repercussions are felt beyond the field of sport. Certificates earned in sport are used to secure admissions in colleges and universities. These “achievements” are cited in securing scholarships and, in some instances, even employment.
For their competitors, it is an uphill battle. One that begins with a frustrating suspicion that the fight is with unequal rivals. It stunts such players’ evolution and denies them the opportunity to either secure admission in an academic course, get scholarships and gainful employment with public sector undertakings.
We should also spend a moment in seeing how little has been done by either lawmakers or the guardians of each sport in India to tackle this menace. We have had sporadic action like that taken by the AFI. On the face of it, by enforcing it in Ranchi and Raipur in the span of a few months, it has shown honest intent. But what next?
At the moment, all National Sports Federations are emboldened to follow the National Sports Development Code of India 2011 which suggests in its Annexure XVI that upon conclusive proof being available that an athlete has committed age fraud, an NSF must ban that athlete from taking part in any sport for two years.
Despite such a clear indication, we have rarely heard of any athlete being banned for two years for cheating on age. After a Central Bureau of Investigation report, the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) suspended four West Bengal table tennis players for committing age fraud. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) sought to take similar action, but stopped short.
AFI has pointed out some issues in dealing with the menace. Some hospitals are not readily forthcoming to undertake medical examination of the athletes and give dates after three to six months of the event. It also said that verifying birth or education certificates was a cumbersome process.
Yet, there does not seem to be a consensus. At least one irate father whose child was not given a Khelo India scholarship said that he has presented evidence of his marriage and the birth certificate issued by the municipality. “Is the bone density test the last word?” he asked, unable to hide his disappointment that “scientific evidence” took precedence over “material evidence”.
How seriously panels constituted to lay the groundwork for such laws view age fraud can be gauged from the fact that the draft of the Prevention of Sporting Fraud Bill, 2013, made no mention of age-based cheating. In fact, not much has been heard of this document which has drawn public attention in fits and starts since 2015 when the Law Ministry suggested some changes.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India’s former President Anurag Thakur introduced a private member’s bill in Lok Sabha, titled The Sports Ethics Commission Bill, 2016, aiming to set up the National Sports Ethics Commission to ensure ethical practices and fair play in sports including elimination of doping practices, match-fixing, fraud of age and sexual harassment of women.
He suggested that any sportsperson, guardian, coach or a member of a Sports Federation who withholds the information regarding true age or gender of a sportsperson shall be punished with a jail term of at least six months (except in case of minors), a fine of Rs 1 lakh and a ban from participating in any sports event in any capacity.
Hockey India is one of the few NSFs which has a Policy on Age Fraud that envisages the ban on such players for up to two years. It lets its member units verify the age of the players for age-group competitions, specifying that all players must get their age verified by way of a medical test prior to participation. HI will conduct an additional medical test to perform its due diligence.
The Cycling Federation of India (CFI) also has a Regulation Related to Age Fraud which makes those involved in age fraud liable for a two-year ban. However, it also says that riders who are assessed for age fraud and found overage in medical tests by the orthopedic doctors are permitted to participate only in upper age category.
Yet, most NSFs do not treat age-fraud with as much concern, except offering some lip-sympathy to those players who are affected by it all. They should be following a due process, hear the athletes and their parents, consider the medical evidence and arrive at reasoned conclusion, including a possible ban and annulment of all results in age-group competition.
The Badminton Association of India (BAI), for instance, blames the parents for age fraud and is not inclined to do much more than change the age-group of the player it finds over-age after an annual medical test. More recently, it deactivated the IDs of more than a dozen players who had registered twice, including 11 with different dates of birth.
Tennis is not very different either since the All India Tennis Association (AITA) is wary of litigation by parents or players. The AITA Age Manipulation document does not mention any sanctions and has only said it would take up the issue with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Clearly, a lot is left to be done on this front.
That assumes significance when you consider the fact that the AFI estimates that at least 100 athletes are suspect in each of its age-group competitions. Unless there is a stringent follow-up action beyond disqualification from an event, this menace will keep bobbing its ugly head ever so often.
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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 18:28:16 IST