Updated: July 28, 2022 8:43:17 am
As the strong Indian contingent for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) serially lands, sport by sport, player by player, in the UK, they carry the immense expectations of a medal-starved nation. The expectations are not misplaced because Indian sport is beginning to come of age. Competition in the CWG is limited and that augments hope. However, we still have a long way to go to becoming an Olympic powerhouse that China has turned out to be. Even in the Commonwealth (CW), while India is good, its performance is a pale shadow of China’s in the Olympics. What is unmistakable, though, is that economic growth in the case of China was strongly correlated with their sports performance. If we were to draw a parallel between India’s economic growth and performance, as one of the fastest growing economies in the CW, if not the world, one could expect that we might crown ourselves in glory soon enough.
Sports have become commercial and that has enabled us to reap rewards. One could safely argue that our sporting accomplishments have grown quicker and medals have come at a faster clip than the rate at which the institutional setup for sport has evolved. Institutions evolve glacially, so the above statement does not pass the Samuelsonian test of being true and non-obvious. Even if true and obvious, is the institutional stasis recognised? Did we recognise and act during the period when rapid economic growth of over 9 per cent during 2004-09 outstripped institutional change? That period laid bare the weakness of institutions that were unable to keep pace with a rapidly growing economy. Institutions that govern the market in India are still evolving but at least now there is an acknowledgement that they need to become much more friendly and facilitate the efficient functioning of markets.
For sports, the national agencies still operate in the 20th-century mode with the associated mindset of lifetime employment in the federations, run like fiefdoms. Judicial intervention in several cases involving national federations has brought this aspect to the fore. Courts have appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA) to run several federations temporarily including football, hockey, badminton, table tennis to name a few. A CoA ran the cricket body for six years before handing it over to an elected board. Cricket was the first target because the sport had become profoundly commercial and its governance is dismal. The name of the institution — Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) – betrayed how it “controlled” the sport. Unbeknownst to the board, the rapid commercialisation of cricket meant that it came under the scrutiny of stakeholders and became a victim of success. What led to its downfall? For a start, while it raked in big bucks, it short-changed spectators. Spectators were provided little comfort in stadiums, packed like sardines on uncomfortable cemented blocks and with no refreshments worth the name, while patronage was dished out through the selection and nomination of teams and managers respectively at national and state levels. It was, in short, an unfettered exercise of monopoly power.
While the BCCI came under scrutiny, it was not an exception. Other sports federations oversaw intrigue and dished out patronage. Who can forget an IPS officer running hockey as somebody would run a jail and treat players as if they needed to be brought to heel? Who can forget Dhanraj Pillai being dropped at the peak of his career because he refused to pay obeisance to the mighty federation? Several other deserving players fell by the wayside without ever being able to secure justice against mountainous egos.
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There are several sports in India that are subject to the same monopolistic attitude and conduct of federations that tend to be run by bureaucrats rather than by people who know the game. The modus operandi is straightforward. Federations offer the lure of selection for coaches, managers and players, sometimes deservedly and often undeservedly to keep resistance at bay, while keeping others guessing in whose direction the next crumb will fall. This patronage system has worked well for the federations but not for players. Is it a surprise, then, that we are globally recognised in very few sports? While that is now changing, the culture of managing sports needs to change as well. Whatever glory has been acquired by Indian sportspersons has not been due to the federations but despite them.
The government routinely spends a lot of money on training people abroad and hiring foreign coaches. Thus, teams and individuals spend time training and acclimatising in Europe, Japan, Korea, and the United States to name a few destinations for extended stints. While the exposure of players to tournaments abroad is a very good idea, India could also weigh the benefits of becoming a training hub for sportspersons from different parts of the world. For example, in cricket we can, with a little effort, become the sought-after destination for training global talent. I imagine we can develop such facilities in chess, shooting, badminton and hockey to start with. This will have a salutary effect on sports in general and the people engaged in the specific sport in particular.
Commercialisation has certainly been a success factor, but a change in the culture of institutions that support sport is critical to move to the next level. The metamorphosis of cricket and of the institution governing cricket demonstrates the possibilities. Former sportspersons can take charge of guiding, mentoring and even running federations if not completely, then at least on an equal footing with the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats are essential to administration in India, but for the nuances of sports governance, is it not best to involve the experts extensively?
Kathuria is Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar University, a national table tennis selector and a former international player. Views are personal
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