Are Pullela Gopichand, Injeti Srinivas guilty of causing conflict of interest in India sports administration?

The lists of National Sports Day Award winners are awaiting the Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports Vijay Goel’s approval. As has become usual in the past few years, the nominations for the whole range of awards from Arjuna Award to Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, from Dronacharya Award to Dhyan Chand Award have sparked some debate.

The strident voices of Rio Paralympic medallist Deepa Malik, tennis star Rohan Bopanna and basketball player Anita Paul Durai were heard in the wake of the Arjuna Award nominations but there was an uneasy silence in the aftermath of the Dronacharya shortlist becoming public – all this despite there being no official communication about the choices made by the two committees.

Pullela Gopichand. Image from Getty Images.

Pullela Gopichand. File Image from Getty Images.

Indian boxing ace Akhil Kumar, known to call a spade a spade, was spot on head when he said that times had changed from a Dronacharya making an Arjuna in the epic to an Arjuna making Dronacharyas now. He said that a few days before this year’s shortlist of nominees for Dronacharya Award came up for discussion before a select committee.

And as coincidences go, badminton legend Pullela Gopichand’s coach Ganguly Prasad figured in the shortlist of those named for lifetime achievement.  Some members of the panel were reportedly unfamiliar with Prasad’s name and Gopichand is said to have pointed out that he was among those who were coached by Prasad.

The Chairman of the panel is also reported to have said that he would offer no further comment when the panel discussed the name. It appears there was not much debate within the conference room. But the strongest words were already spoken. How would members even think of discussing a name that their Chairman had nominated and endorsed in their presence?

Of course, as a Dronacharya Award winner himself, Gopichand is well within his right to nominate a badminton coach for the National Sports Awards. But having exercised that right, it would only have been proper if he had not accepted the Chairmanship of the panel that would decide the fate of the nomination.

Having decided to accept Chairmanship, should Gopichand not have recused himself for reasons of propriety and let the panel discuss his choice?  Also, considering that Prasad was nominated by Gopichand, can it be a mere coincidence that the two nominations by Government were of coaches associated with the other two Olympians on the Olympic Task Force?

Heinz Reinkemeier was associated with Abhinav Bindra, while Vladimir Mestvirishvili recently returned to India, as per India’s only double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, through an NGO where Viren Rasquinha is CEO.

One is not suggesting nepotism by the Olympian trio but it appears as if Government machinery sought to please the country’s three most powerful Olympians with nominations of their coaches to the National Sports Awards. Gopichand may have informed his colleagues on the awards panel that Prasad had coached him, too.

Come to think of it, can we blame Gopichand alone? Surely not. Those who named him to head the committee are more culpable. Why would anyone be named Chairman of an awards panel if he is currently serving as the National Chief Coach? Besides, should he have been included in the panel after he had nominated one of his own coaches for the award?

In his role as Director-General Sports Authority of India, Injeti Srinivas, Secretary, Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, appears to have legitimately nominated Reinkemeier and Mestvirishvili a day or so before the Awards panel was scheduled to meet in Delhi on 5 August. Ideally, they should be nominated for the Padma Shri for their contribution to Indian sporting history.

Quite curiously, as coincidences in Indian sport go, their names sprang up a few days before the Awards panel was to meet in Delhi. It appears that the articles shook up the bureaucracy from slumber and it was hurriedly decided to include these two overseas coaches for their lifetime contribution to India’s sports legacy.

It is another matter that the awards committee, including Gopichand, did not collectively think it fit to present the Dronacharya Award to overseas coaches. There may have been no discussion on the merits of the two coaches in question once the panel decided against taking up the cases of overseas coaches for prestigious national award but some interesting questions arise.

Why did it take the SAI DG so many years after Abhinav Bindra’s Olympic gold to nominate the German shooting coach and the Georgian wrestling coach for the Lifetime Achievement award? Why did he not nominate Mestvirishvili, who has turned down a few offers to return to Georgia, when he was engaged by SAI for more than a decade?

It is important for the thought leaders who care for the nation’s sporting future to leave no room for doubt, even at the nascent stage of their evolution as alternatives to the existing sports administration landscape. Besides, it is important for Government not to project them in light that can lead to such doubts.

As votaries of the move against conflict of interest in sports administration, Srinivas and Gopichand – and perhaps, Bindra and Rasquinha, as well – could have contributed towards the cleansing of the vexed system that has plagued India for long by playing defining roles. Disappointingly, they appeared to have played the system themselves.

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2017 16:18 PM

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