No more playing nice: Sarita Devi's protest a sign of Indians coming of age

Sarita Devi was a sore loser because she had gone to Seoul to win, and she knew she could, and that she deserved to win that semifinal bout.

Rajeev Srinivasan October 04, 2014 14:14:08 IST
No more playing nice: Sarita Devi's protest a sign of Indians coming of age

The fact that Sarita Devi committed a major faux pas by refusing to accept a boxing bronze medal at the Asian Games is just about the best thing that could have happened to Indian sports. That she did this at the risk of potentially career-ending sanctions shows her courage and her pride in her hard-won athleticism: may her tribe increase!

The allegation that Indian officials were nowhere to be seen, neither supporting her nor funding her appeal, is a good signal to start house-cleaning in the sports sector.

First, speaking about Sarita Devi, it is fitting that she made her protest around Gandhi Jayanti. For, what she was protesting can be compared to what the young Gandhi underwent when he was thrown out of a railway carriage in South Africa. She was protesting injustice, in her own way, just as Gandhi did in his.

In the end, no doubt under duress, she did apologize unconditionally to the boxing body, but she had made her point abundantly clear.

No more playing nice Sarita Devis protest a sign of Indians coming of age

Sarita Devi was a sore loser because she had gone to Seoul to win, and she knew she could, and that she deserved to win that semifinal bout. Reuters

Sarita can also be compared to Rosa Parks, the elderly black woman in the American South, who refused to give up her seat to a white man and triggered the entire Civil Rights movement there, leading to Brown v. Board of Education and de-segregation.

A man or woman standing up for justice is a sight for sore eyes. In 1968, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, did a ‘black power’ salute from the winners’ podium at the Mexico Olympics. Nobody has done, after that, anything as dramatic as Sarita Devi refusing to wear the bronze medal and instead handing it over to the silver-medal winner, a South Korean, who apparently was the beneficiary of judges’ prejudice.

But why did she do this? Was Sarita showing poor sportsmanship? No, I believe Sarita Devi was a sore loser because she had gone to Seoul to win, and she knew she could, and that she deserved to win that semifinal bout, because she had performed well. I love this: a sore loser! So much better than what Indians have been under the Nehruvian dispensation: sporting losers!

Indians took to heart the aphorism that “It is not winning that matters, it’s participation.” In fact, Indians are the only people who, unthinkingly, swallow this utter tripe: and it is garbage. Perhaps it was necessary at a time when Indians were no good at any sport, but that’s not so true any more, at least at the Asian level.

Every other country sends its athletes to the Olympics and Asiad to win, not to be part of the scenery. In India, on the other hand, the Stalinists have used the Olympics and Asiad and so forth as opportunities for officials and their families to get trips to exotic locations at taxpayer expense. Naturally, they don’t care if the athletes win or lose: they will get the free trips anyway. This has to stop. The number of officials has to be pared to the bone, and there should also be a clause about performance and there should be clear accountability.

On the contrary, stories are rife about the ill-treatment of athletes by officials. Former track great PT Usha recounted how she and her trainees were humiliated and in tears after officials refused them even basic amenities at a meet. That is just one story. So there’s something rotten in India’s sports bureaucracy. For instance, politicians vie to get in on the more lucrative sports councils, and it becomes yet another avenue for corruption.

There has also been a cloud over the Indian Olympic Association for some time. It was suspended in December 2012 by the International Olympic Committee for irregularity in their elections, and only re-instated in February 2014. If I remember right, the Boxing Federation was also censured and suspended. So the mischief is widespread.

Unfortunately, there have been sporting scandals all over the place, and the image we have of sports as a clean thing is not quite true. Remember the great cyclist Lance Armstrong, exposed for taking drugs, and match fixing in football and cricket. There is a big, ongoing scandal about the award of the next football World Cup to Qatar despite its appalling human rights record.

Boxing may be particularly dubious, because the judges’ decision is final, and as Sarita Devi experienced, there’s no appeal and no questioning of their decision. And I am sure Sarita will, poor thing, be subjected to severe sanctions. But the fact that she stood up and protested will remain a highlight of these games.

Sarita Devi’s protest may be coinciding with the coming of age of Indians, and their self-assertion. No more Mr. Nice Guys – we are here to win, not just to participate. Perhaps this self-confidence will spill over into other sectors as well: and that would be a very good thing.

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