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Indian sport’s Forever Men

Nirmal Shekar in The Hindu

Many of the sports administrative bodies are besmirched by feudal attitudes where the top guys have reigned for long and appear to claim ownership rights over their ‘property’


The best thing that has happened to sports in India in a long, long time — longer perhaps than many of us have existed on this planet — is the laudably idealistic yet remarkably pragmatic intervention of the Supreme Court into Wild West territory — the landscape of cricket administration.
So much of what the well-meaning lay people have expected of the men who control sports has been trampled under mercilessly and maliciously, that a good majority of sports-lovers in the country have found refuge in nihilism and come to believe that nothing will change in the state of affairs.

When you think that something has been transformed for the better, very soon you realise it is nothing more than chimerical and it might be foolish and useless to bravely make your way through the haze.

If sports politics is even more Machiavellian than Indian politics in general, then that should come as no surprise. For we resign ourselves to the fact that sport is not a matter quite as important as electing the country’s Prime Minister.


Sliver of hope

But just when we thought that it is a tunnel without an end, the Supreme Court, headed by its upstanding, noble Chief Justice Mr. T.S. Thakur (who retired recently) has offered us a sliver of hope here or there — in fact much, much more than what we may have come to expect 70 years after the country’s Independence.

A popular, veteran Indian sportsperson, who tried to get into the administration of his sport not long ago, put it succinctly the other day when I asked him what was wrong with sports administration in the country at a time when the nation’s richest, and perhaps one of the world’s wealthiest sports bodies, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), was making front-page news for all the wrong reasons every day.

“You tell me what is right with it. It stinks. I shudder to think that such mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and chaos can exist in 2017,” he said.

Most well-meaning people in the world of sports, when asked the same question, not surprisingly come up with the same answer: “a total lack of professionalism.’’


Reasons for lagging

This is an over-arching judgement that seems to ignore the nuts and bolts of everyday affairs in major sports in the country. From experts down to lay fans, almost everybody has an opinion on why such a huge nation should not be among the leading performers in the world of sport. Infrastructure, money, attitude, culture…you can think of dozens of reasons why India does not stand tall in the world of sport.

Says Joaquim Carvalho, Olympian and hockey administrator “Sports governance in India lacks transparency and accountability. Most officials are not passionate about sports at all. They use this platform to keep themselves in the news and also indulge in corruption.

“I have a poor impression of sports governance because I have seen these officials as a player and later I as someone connected with the conduct of the game. They have vested interest and development of sport is never a priority for them. Basically, it helps them stay in the news, build connections and enjoy junkets. Sports governance in India is absolutely unprofessional.”

While it will be unfair to make a sweeping generalisation — there are a few sports that benefit from modern management where the administration is totally transparent in its business. But most are besmirched by feudal attitudes where the top guys have been the same since the days of your childhood, and they appear to claim ownership rights over their ‘property.’

‘Honorary’ positions are not ones manned by individuals with perfectly altruistic intentions. To even expect it is ridiculous. Even saints do what they do to get into the good books of the big, all-knowing, all-powerful man up there.



On an upward swing

There is a flip side to all this. Adille Sumariwala, IAAF executive council member and president, Athletics Federation of India, says, “Sports is on the upward swing in India. Television and the leagues in virtually all sports have increased the fan following. Children know the names of kabaddi players, not only cricketers. Television has brought sports to people, there is more awareness. It’s a matter of time before sports emerges much stronger. There are opportunities to make sport a career in life. And so sports is on the upswing’’.

But here is the catch. Do we have honest officials with a long-term goals in mind? It is indeed boom-time in Indian sports. But the launching pads, corporate support and fans’ enthusiasm may quickly evaporate if the quality of administration remains the same.

How many of our present sports administrators come in with a clear mandate and then move forward stridently to carry it out? Do they go through the same strict annual evaluation process as do brilliant business school graduates?

Success as sports administrators demands a few basic skills in areas such as communication, organisation, decision making, value system and team building.

“Indian sports administrators are special. I must admit that. They are in a category of their own,” said the late Peter Roebuck, my best friend among foreign journalists visiting India frequently, during one of our post dinner conversations.

What Roebuck referred to was mainly cricket but he was curious enough to want to know more and more about other sports. Leadership skills can be either cultivated or learned but the men and women who run our sports are keen on only one thing — staying where they are with a great love for being in the spotlight.

How many times have we seen sports bosses appearing prominently in photographs of athletes who return after world-beating success at airports across the country?

Long ago, a top Indian sportsman returning after winning the world championship told me something that was shocking. I asked him who the gentleman who was hugging him in the front page of a leading Indian English language paper? “I swear, I have never seen the guy before,” he said of a man who was a senior administrator in the sport.

Of course, the nameless one is part of the Forever Men club.

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