It is tough to guess if Soumya Swaminathan would have expected a personal decision to become a subject of debate and for her to be caught in a raging crossfire. The Grand Master’s decision to pull out of the Indian chess team for next month’s Asian Nations Cup tournament in Iran because of dress regulations has been the subject of many a conversation over two days.
To be sure, if a country is free to ask for certain norms to be followed, a sportsperson (or anyone else, for that matter) is just as free to decide whether he or she wants to play under such conditions. An athlete can choose not to compete in a country because he or she has a point of view that is contrary to the expectations of that nation.
At a time when cricket — and football, now that the FIFA World Cup 2018 is upon us — and other sport have been thought of as religions, it is an irony that a refusal to take part in an event where a religious dress code may have been mandatory has the potential to make a sport out of religion, if the potshots that people are taking in cyberspace is anything to go by.
Come to think of it, Soumya Swaminathan is not the first athlete to refuse to take part in a sporting contest because of his or her own beliefs. Those who watched the film Chariots of Fire will remember that British athlete Eric Liddell refused to run the 100m in the 1924 Olympic Games because the first-round heats was held on a Sunday (Sabbath).
In more recent times, British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards skipped the 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo as he would have to compete on a Sunday. Interestingly, NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon has been immortalised by the Houston Rockets with an installation of his jersey rather than a picture or likeness of him because of his religious beliefs.
One of the biggest names in professional boxing, Amir Khan pulled out of a prizefight against Floyd Mayweather in 2014 because his 17-hours-a-day fast during the Ramzan would have hampered his preparation for the bout a couple of months later. Indian pistol shooter Heena Sidhu pulled out of the Asian Airgun meet in Iran in 2016.
Indeed, athletes making sacrifices because of their religious leanings should not surprise anyone at all. It is a pity that instead of accepting Soumya Swaminathan’s choice as an individual’s decision, some political commentators have chosen to express that she would assert her individual rights every time. Surely, you can expect that from the modern Indian sportsperson.
Of course, the former world junior champion would have known that by posting her points of view on Facebook, she was opening herself up to appreciation and criticism of some sort. But she would have expected everyone to read it carefully become commenting. As her fortune would have it, Soumya Swaminathan has been caught in the crossfire of politically divergent folk.
However, a reading of her post would suggest that she has said she understands the organisers’ expectations that players would wear the team dress but is very disappointed that the Asian Chess Federation would allot an event of this stature without taking into account the players’ individual rights. Curiously, some have missed that pertinent point in her post.
Less than two years ago, American champion Nazi Paikidze stayed away from the World Championship in Tehran protesting against dress regulations. Given that experience, the Asian Chess Federation should have been wiser than to allot the Asian Nations Cup to Hamadan in Iran from 26 July to 4 August.
It is significant that Soumya Swaminathan did not call upon her teammates to pull out of the competition. If she had been doing that, one could have attributed political motives to that. But since her decision concerned only herself, it must be believed that she was neither seeking to make a political statement nor emerge as a youth leader.
It would not have been intentional to spark a Google search for her or be trending on social media. But she would have realised that social media does have the power to drive deep wedges. She would hardly have intended it to be escalated as a massive spat in cyberspace. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the enormous attention that she has been given over the past couple of days.
Surely, she can be back in the Indian team sooner than later as one of the country’s top players, putting behind the controversy that others have made it to be. For the sociologically inclined, it will be fascinating to track her journey back. As for her, the 29-year-old would be wishing the personal decision she made would be respected as such and best left at that.
Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 18:50 PM