Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen selection fiasco: India need better sports culture to avoid elite athletes' sense of entitlement

 Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen selection fiasco: India need better sports culture to avoid elite athletes sense of entitlement

Humility, grace and respect for the competition are in short supply. And there is great evidence of a sense of entitlement. Or so it seems when one reads about young boxer Nikhat Zareen’s plea for a fair and transparent chance to earn selection in the Indian squad for the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in Ulan-Ude in Russia from 3 October.

The Boxing Federation of India erred in not sticking to its schedule and calling off the 51kg class trials at the eleventh hour. In doing that it has come across as being manipulated by coach Chote Lal Yadav, if not the star boxer herself. The Federation should have put its foot down and asked Mary Kom to attend the trials rather than inform Nikhat Zareen at the last minute that trials would not be held.

The selectors will know, more than anyone else, reputation does not count as much as current form. And they forgot that they had drawn up a schedule for trials, well aware of Mary Kom’s record as a multiple World Champion and her having beaten Nikhat Zareen in the India Open in May last. They could have scrapped trials then itself if they were convinced about the 51kg class.

Why is clear communication so beyond such Federations? One of the more remembered recent instances of selection fracas concerns Leander Paes and non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi. After he was not selected for the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan in 2017, Leander accused the captain of bias. But Mahesh Bhupathi came clean, sharing texts in which he had told Leander he would pick Rohan Bopanna as the doubles specialist.

Of course, a more dramatic episode played out ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Wrestling Federation of India is said to have promised India’s only individual two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar that he would get to grapple with Narsingh Yadav in a trial bout. And when it dragged its feet, Sushil Kumar moved Delhi High Court.

The whole episode, and subsequent events made it seem like Sushil sought preferential treatment. The truth is that if the WFI had told him that Narsingh, who had won the quota for India, was the selectors’ first choice for Rio, things would not have come to such a pass. The Federation is still reeling from the blow to its image.

Back in 2008, one of the world’s best double trap shooters, Ronjan Sodhi played by the rules and let Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore take his spot in the Olympic Games squad. After all, Rathore had won the quota and, while his form slumped, the rules at that time decreed that he exercised his right to represent the country in the Beijing Games.

Why does a sense of entitlement creep into the mindset of some elite athletes? This has its roots in how the Indian society, hungry for success at the international level, responds to sporting achievement. While it brings along great publicity for those offering rewards to the athletes, it is a surefire way to create and grow a cultural divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Perhaps, it also has its origin in India having a tiny number of elite athletes. A feeling of being indispensable creeps in and some of these athletes learn to manipulate the system to their advantage. This can be brought under control only if those in the coaching and selection process are fair and transparent, backing every one with merit and fairly.

The only way to end this is to remind professional athletes that they have to comply with the system laid down and agreed upon when it comes to training and competition. There can be no compromises there. But for that to happen, India will need strong selectors and administrators who do not buckle down to pressure from anyone. They will have to develop the spine and will of steel.

Of course, besides drawing up a competition schedule, India (and its administrators) must be flexible and ensure that the best training facilities are provided to the athletes. A move to provide gymnast Dipa Karmakar a foam pit to assist her landing is worthy of much applause. However, a move to scrap selection trials at the best of a prima donna deserves the strongest condemnation.

Then again, if humility, grace and respect for fellow competitors are elusive in elite sport in the country, India has only itself to blame. For, its sports culture seems to begin and end with looking after the needs and demands of a handful of elite athletes. It has created and nurtured a system in which the creamy layer is pretty well looked after and, perhaps, even taught to flex its muscles.

It spawns a culture in which players figure in the list of the highest-paid and yet would not give up a Rs 50,000 out of pocket allowance from the taxpayers each month. It is these athletes who do not hesitate to tweet to the powers-that-be when feeling aggrieved or when needing some kind of urgent help.

The eagerness to address the elite athletes’ issues does lead to some of them speaking about a range of things – from not having a spare pair of spikes (despite having enough and more in the bank) to having to travel in economy class when they could secure an upgrade by paying the difference in fare; from getting preferential treatment at national camps to being poor examples for juniors.

Yes, the innate desire in the political leadership to improve India’s sports culture will be of no significance if the leadership itself forsakes a sense of balance when celebrating international success. The rush to acknowledge, reward, the big names when they return with medals from major events has led to this unfettered sense of entitlement.

Indeed, all the talk of creating a sports culture will cease to have meaning if it does not also encourage experienced athletes to share their knowledge with the rising performers. Of course, the athletes’ competitive streak must never be compromised in the arena, but it would do their own aura and image a world of good if they are seen as competitors with a healthy dose of sporting spirit.

Updated Date: Aug 08, 2019 19:02:55 IST