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INDIAN ATHLETES UNDOING: India's corrupt and incompetent politicians and sports administrators are ruining the nation's sportsmen, writes Manu Joseph
THE only nice thing people say about Indians at the Summer Olympic Games is that winning is not everything. They say that at the Winter Games, too.
In the entire history of the Olympic movement, India has won just 20 medals. If the 11 for men's field hockey are not counted, the total is nine, of which just seven were for the performance of independent India in individual events: five bronze medals, one silver and a lone gold.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which was India's best showing yet, the country ranked 50th. As some Indians have pointed out, Mongolia was ahead. India is expected to do better than ever at the London Olympics, which begins on July 27, but it is still likely to be a dismal showing considering the number of people in the world who are called Indian.
Indians know whom to blame -- politicians and sports administrators who are corrupt and incompetent. The country's athletes train in conditions that are much better than in the past but that would still be unacceptable to American livestock. Weightlifters practice in damp, odorous halls with leaking roofs. Female athletes cannot bear to enter the toilets designated for them. Runners do not always have proper shoes, boxers train with torn gloves, wrestlers do not have mats, no modern diet plans are in place, and there is no proper medical care.
But most athletes are so impoverished and their lives so dependent on various government-financed federations that it is not uncommon to see many of them touch the feet of sports administrators, a gesture of unambiguous respect and flattery. Servility will help them survive, and self-respect will destroy them.
In his book A Shot at History, Abhinav Bindra, the shooter who won India's only individual Olympic gold medal, dedicated a chapter to sports administrators. In the chapter, titled "Mr Indian Official: Thanks for Nothing," he writes: "In India, we must swim through chaos on the way to a medal. It almost feels as if our medals are more meaningful, considering what we go through to win one."
Days after Bindra won the gold medal in Beijing, the president of the Indian Olympic Association and a member of Parliament, Suresh Kalmadi, got the Indian hero's name wrong. Kalmadi called him "Avinash".
The most reviled sports administrator in India, Kalmadi is facing corruption charges. He was arrested last year and spent months in prison before being released on bail. Now he wants to go to London for the Olympics, apparently to lend moral support to Indian athletes. This has led to much public outrage. Rahul Mehra, a lawyer and sports enthusiast, has petitioned the Delhi High Court to prevent Kalmadi from going to London.
Mehra, 39, who has a gaunt face and keen eyes, is an expensive lawyer, who sometimes charges his rich clients Rs55,000 (RM3,100) "in consultation fees for a single sitting," he told me. And he can charge twice as much to appear in court. But as an activist he spends hours earning nothing but the bitter curses of India's top sports administrators.
In 2010, he filed a court petition against 13 sports organisations, including federations that govern athletics, tennis, badminton and boxing, alleging that there were serious irregularities in their management.
His chief grouse was and is that these bodies are run "like dictatorships" by men who have been at the helm for many years, their authority uncontested. Kalmadi, for instance, has been the head of the Indian Olympic Association for
nearly two decades. The president of the Archery Association of India, V.K. Malhotra, has been in his post for more than three decades.
"How can they remain presidents until God intervenes?" Mehra asked.
By the intervention of God he meant death, and there was a gleam in his eyes when he said that.
Mehra first rose to public prominence in 2000 when he took on the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the governing body for organised cricket in the country.
He asserted that it was an opaque organisation whose dealings were very secretive.
BCCI, for its part, said that it was a private body that never asked for any funds from the government.
Mehra argued that cricket is a national obsession and that the BCCI's cricketers represent India in international competitions, so its governance had to be transparent.
When his petition came to light, there was an outpouring of gratitude from Indian cricket fans. Some even sent him letters written in blood, their own blood, in all probability.
In 2007, the Delhi High Court, in a significant ruling, instructed the BCCI to open its affairs to some level of public scrutiny.
Mehra has found similar support for his petitions against other sports bodies. The Delhi High Court has even directed the Sports Ministry to make these federations more transparent and democratic.
The court wants them to conduct annual elections and limit the tenure of their presidents. The ministry has yet to comply with the order.
Meanwhile, there will be 81 great athletes at the London Olympics who know that on their jerseys that say "India", there is a missing word: "Despite." IHT
Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian news weekly Open and author of the novel, Serious Men