With state polls round the corner, there is considerable political mileage at stake in making the South Asian Games a grand fare. Hence, the sports ministry’s insistence on stars’ participation. But forcing them to tweak their Rio build-up and ply against obscure athletes seems meaningless. Mihir Vasavda dissects.
If Saina Nehwal steps on the court at the South Asian Games next week, her toughest opponent in all probability would be a player ranked 210 places below her. In early rounds, she is likely to come across opponents who are ranked outside the top 600 of the world. But at least her rivals feature somewhere on the ranking charts. Shiva Thapa will cut short his crucial training-cum-exposure stint in Sheffield to fight boxers who do not even feature in International Boxing Association’s list while the women’s basketball team will, at some point, slug it out against a Bhutan side that was formed just a week ago.
Such is the ‘depth of field’ in most sports at the Games. And the country’s top sportspersons are expected to shun their preparations for the Rio Olympics and make themselves available for the regional event, which is being held three years behind its scheduled date. At least that’s what the sports ministry is expecting.
This sudden surge in the event’s prestige from the organisers’ point of view is perplexing given that just six months ago, no one seemed to care about this eight-nation event. Around June last year, pangs of anxiety could be felt in the normally laidback corridors of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). They had assured the neighbouring countries that after a three-year delay, the SAG would finally be held in 2015. But half the year had passed and the Olympic body had still not found any takers to host the event.
Guwahati was in the running early on. But the Tarun Gogoi-led Assam government did not show enough enthusiasm (something which sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal has time and again highlighted). With time running out, IOA approached Kerala, who had staged the National Games successfully earlier in the year. The IOA’s proposal seemed logical – since all the required venues existed already, it would have saved time and money on preparing for the event and there was a chance to conduct it in December 2015, as the IOA had hoped.
Kerala, too, seemed interested. They wrote twice to the sports ministry expressing their willingness, the state’s sports minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan said last June. Just when it seemed the Games would head to the coastal state, Guwahati entered the scene again, this time with Sonowal himself taking the lead to ensure the Games are conducted in his home state.
Gogoi, also the state’s Olympic body president, suddenly swung into action and later that month, things somehow fell in place. The IOA decided to hand the Games to Guwahati and Shillong. No reason was given as to why the twin Northeastern cities were chosen ahead of a comprehensive bid from Kerala. But no objection was raised either. The IOA, too, was relieved that the Games would finally be held.
A couple of months later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) elevated Sonowal as their state unit chief in Assam, ahead of the polls which are expected to be held in April-May this year. On Thursday, he was officially named the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Coincidentally, on the same day, the sports ministry also shot off letters to some national sports federations, stressing that all top athletes should participate in the SAG.
IT isn’t a diktat, ministry officials insist. Instead, it is a ‘request’, which they expect the federations and athletes to understand. But even before the ministry wrote letters to the federations on Thursday asking them to ensure participation of top players, they had directed them verbally on the same issue weeks ago, forcing coaches and federation chiefs to rejig their February plans.
It is learnt reliably that badminton chief coach Pullela Gopichand wanted to send a second string side as an additional tournament in an already packed calendar would only add to the shuttlers’ woes. However, he was told to name a full-strength team . And he wasn’t the only one ordered to change the look of the squad. Boxers, for instance, were scheduled to train in Sheffield, England, with Great Britain and Irish counterparts ahead of an Olympic qualifying tournament in March. That they have been starved of international exposure meant the camp would have been a boon. But the SAG threw a spanner in their works.
Coach Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu says there was no pressure from the ministry to pick a first-choice team. However, it is believed that the International Boxing Federation-appointed ad hoc committee issued a directive insisting that the country’s top boxers make themselves available for the trials to select the team for the regional meet. The fact that the trials were conducted on January 14, however, resulted in the Indian team having to skip a planned training stint in Sheffield. “It would have helped us a lot because more than practice facilities, the boys would have got the opportunity to box with some of the best boxers ,” Sandhu says. “Ultimately, in the interest of the country, we decided to send our best possible squad for the games.”
Two boxers from the national camp –Shiva Thapa (bantamweight) and Devendro Singh (light flyweight) – were, however, still able to head for the training stint in the UK. But they will cut short on their trip by a couple of days to ensure they are back in time for the South Asian Games. “Shiva and Devendro are part of the TOP scheme. They had already made their plans to take part in the Sheffield camp in advance, so they left for it after the trials,” explains coach Sandhu.
Even the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) had initially named two senior and one junior shooter in each event but later changed the team composition, replacing the junior marksman with a seasoned pro. President Raninder Singh insists it isn’t because of ministry’s ‘request’. Rather, he says they wanted to support the government in its ‘political role.’ “India is the predominant country in the region, and we wanted to stamp our class. There are some good shooters from Bangladesh so I don’t think we could’ve sent a second string side. We also wanted to support the government in its political role as organiser of the Games,” he says.
Perhaps, by mentioning ‘political role’ Raninder is hinting at India’s growing superiority in the region overall. But in the backdrop of the Games, a different kind of political game is being played altogether, which when put into perspective explains the government’s insistence on the top athletes participating in the fortnight long event.
Assam goes to vote this April. And both Gogoi and Sonowal are using the South Asian Games as a platform to gain some valuable ground. Gogoi, as the president of the Assam Olympic Association, is as much involved in the organisation of the Games as Sonowal is as the union sports minister. Sonowal is making his best efforts to get all top sportspersons to take part in the Games – in which he looks at enhancing his image during the run-up to the assembly elections. Gogoi, on the other hand, has often targeted him in connection with the mega sports event, being held in the Northeast for the first time.
Only recently, Gogoi dared Sonowal to come out with the allocation and sanction of funds for the event. “Though the state government has submitted a demand for Rs 141.73 crore for smooth and successful conduct of the Games from the ministry of youth affairs & sports headed by Sonowal, it has so far received only Rs 22.70 crore,” Gogoi had complained. Sonowal hit back, accusing Gogoi of misleading the public by stating the BJP had sanctioned Rs 300 to 400 crore for the Games. “Therefore, we should welcome players from other countries to boost tourism in the region,” Sonowal said. When Sonowal tried to claim credit for bringing the Games to the Northeast for the first time, Gogoi was quick to remind that this has been possible only because his government has brought peace to the state. The public exchanges between the two have given the organisation of the Games a very election rally-like flavour.
The general feeling in the ministry corridors is if the Games are a ‘success’, then it will be a huge shot in the arm for Sonowal’s chief ministerial ambition. Hence, some say, there has been a strong emphasis on the federations fielding their best players.
What else would explain the U-turn in ministry’s and IOA’s thinking, which led to the initial postponement of the Games. In October 2012 – when the event was originally scheduled – the IOA decided to defer because the London Olympics had concluded just three months earlier and the players were still fatigued. The suspension of IOA later on and the disagreements within the new body further delayed the Games but the timing of the event couldn’t be more inconvenient for an athlete.
The Rio Olympics are just six months away. This is a crucial phase for some athletes, who consider this as the home stretch of their preparations while for many the next two to three months will provide last opportunities to book a seat on the Rio-bound flight. Instead, they will now be forced to compete against athletes who are much inferior to them, just to ensure that, as hosts, India’s medals tally rakes up. “The level of competition is so skewed in India’s favour that even if we send our second or third string sides in most sports, we will top the medals table. Our priorities have changed over the years. Sadly, the sports ministry has got its priorities all mixed up,” says a coach.
So Saina and PV Sindhu, ranked number 2 and 11 in the world respectively, will battle for the gold with Sri Lanka’s Lekha Shehani, who is ranked 212 in the world. The next best shuttler, Achini Ratnasiri also from Sri Lanka, is ranked 217th in the world but rest of the field is all ranked above 300.
The scenario isn’t any different in wrestling, where the gap between India and the rest is starker. The federation’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar said they have requested the ministry to allow them to field a second-string squad. There are no official records of wrestlers ranked outside 20 in each category but apart from a few Indian wrestlers, there are none from South Asia who feature in that list. “Let’s say if India ranks 15th in the world as a team, then the next best from South Asia will be Pakistan. But they will be ranked 115th. The gap is huge,” Tomar adds.
Shooting, too, is expected to be a rout. One could see the logic in selecting one junior player in squad of three for every category. Going purely by rankings, Indian shooters should win the gold, or even manage a clean sweep, without breaking much sweat. For instance, seven Indian shooters feature in the top 45 of 25m rapid fire pistol event in Asia. The only other South Asian to make the cut is a Pakistani shooter. Ditto in trap, where eight Indians and one Pakistani shooter are ranked amongst continent’s top 59 as per the federation’s website.
So the reluctance on the part of athletes is understandable. “Some rest would have been good. We have been competing non-stop for the last six months and it is going to remain the same till the Olympics. It will either be camps or competitions. It is an honour representing country but when we are in pursuit of something big, these relatively smaller goals need to be sacrificed,” says one of country’s Rio medal hopefuls.
OVER the last decade, the sporting landscape in India has changed drastically. Athletes’ aspirations have changed as well. Unlike in the past, a SAG medal is no more a priority for this generation. The talks and ambitions have now shifted to winning a World Championship or Olympic medal, which means the Games do not generate the same enthusiasm and importance as they once used to. The multiple delays and the frugal budget at which they’re conducted only reinforce its diminishing importance, even within the sports ministry.
Hockey is one of the few sports which has defied the diktat and fielded a team that can best be described as third string. Most senior and junior players are engaged in the Hockey India League. “Our calendar is fixed months in advance. We can’t suddenly change our schedule or release our players just because they decided to host the Games in February after so many delays. Anyway, apart from Pakistan we do not have much competition here,” says a Hockey India official.
On the flipside, there is a theory that a medal here will help those athletes with government jobs earn incentives and promotions. This is one of the reasons the country’s top archers will be taking part in the Games, Archery Association of India treasurer Virendra Sachdeva says. “This is also an aspect we have to consider. Also, the only way to generate buzz about a tournament is by fielding the strongest squad. Hence, we are sending all top athletes who have qualified through the ranking tournament held in Guwahati earlier this month,” he says.
Archery is one of the few sports that has willingly accepted the ministry’s ‘request’ but there have been murmurs of dissent elsewhere. Injetti Srinivas, who is the director general of SAI and CEO of the Games, says it is crucial not to consider this as an inferior event. “It’s not a question of a diktat being issued. It’s an understanding. This is a prestigious international event and shouldn’t be considered inferior. It’s not that you only participate in Olympics, is it? If there are any genuine cases, we will exempt them. But an athlete should take this event seriously and participate as they would in other cases,” Srinivas says.He makes a fair point. But the sudden importance to an event which no one cared about six months back is indeed perplexing.
(Inputs from Jonathan Selvaraj & Samudra Gupta Kashyap)
Saina vs World No. 212 and other such no-contests
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu are ranked world number 2 and 11. Their closest competitor at South Asian Games will be Sri Lanka’s Lekha Shehani, ranked 212th in the world.
> 7 Indians are ranked in top 45 of 25m rapid fire pistol event in Asia. The only other South Asian in the list is Mustafa Ghulam Bashir of Pakistan.
> 11 Indian shooters feature in top 100 of 10m air rifle. Among other South Asian countries, there are exactly the same number of shooters from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan put together.
According to wrestling federation of India assistant secretary, if India is ranked 15th as a team, the next
best from South Asia would be Pakistan, who will be ranked around 115th.
8 out of 15 gold medals on offer in the previous edition (2010) were won by Indian athletes.
49kg category: Devendro Singh (AIBA Rank 13), second best Mohibullah Pakistan (Rank 66)
56kg category: Shiva Thapa (AIBA Rank 2). No competitor on AIBA list.
75kg category: Vikas Krishan (AIBA Rank 6), Senanga Nawarathne (Sri lanka) 76, Ujar Singh Thapa (Nepal) 77.