For years now, India’s women athletes have marched in the breathtaking Olympics opening ceremonies wearing blazers over sarees. They don’t like it but they don’t have a choice. As Rio-bound shuttler Jwala Gutta told this newspaper, “By wearing a blazer we are covering the look. I probably wouldn’t wear it on top. Probably I will be carrying it in my hand this time. I love sarees, and I really can do justice to them. But the blazer…”
Officials give their own justification for the apparent sartorial mismatch. It’s being made westernised and formal, and at the same time everyday Indian, they say. For the billions who tune in on day one of the Olympics, what knee-length shorts are to Bermuda, the blazer-saree combination is to India’s women’s teams.
The “blazer-saree” symbolises the mix-and-match of a sporting system where the twain have finally met. Over the last decade or so, corporates in suits have been seen in Sports Authority of India corridors and sports federation offices. This new ecosystem, flush with corporate funding and government grants, has athletes who are genuine medal contenders and know their worth. With a cast like that, turf wars are expected and petty ego battles. What was feared did happen in what wasn’t a pretty countdown to this year’s Olympics.
Like in the past, even this time around, much before our athletes reluctantly dress up for D-Day, India has managed to look ridiculous. Once again, officials and athletes were busy debating issues that should have been addressed much before the Olympic year commences.
It’s been the case so often that there is a predictable pattern to this four-year ritual. You know the Olympics are round the corner when Indian sports’ problem child, tennis, starts making noises, throws its usual tantrum. “Who will play doubles this time?” is the question that makes fans cringe. It’s that same excruciatingly boring soap opera with layers of intrigue.
Four years ago, Paes wanted Rohan Bopanna as his partner, not Mahesh Bhupathi. After days of drama, Bopanna preferred Bhupathi over Paes. This time around Bopanna again didn’t want Paes but he has been forced to play with him. Meanwhile, Sania Mirza continues to avoid Paes. After Bhupathi at London 2012, she will be with Bopanna at Rio 2016.
So has India got its doubles pairing right or have the officials succumbed to pressure? Or have the players prevailed? Those with their ear to the ground say Paes-Bopanna are India’s best bet. But they add a rider: “They don’t get along”. On the other hand, Bopanna-Sania are seen as close friends. Rider No.2: It is being said that Paes and Sania had a better chance to win a medal. It’s this complex incestuous relationship between this set of friends/foes and their choice of partners which is responsible for India’s mysterious Olympic record. Paes, Bhupathi, Sania between them have won 36 Grand Slam doubles titles but no Indian pair has even been seen on the Olympic podium.
The other news staple in the months before the Olympics concerns the “dope tests”. So far three Rio-bound Indians have tested positive. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is a global problem. On the international list of dope cheats, India ranks third. It’s a statistic which proves that there is rampant use of drugs by our athletes. But see it alongside the fact that India finished 55th on the medals tally at London 2012, and a scandalous thought comes to mind: Neither our athletes nor the drugs they use are world class. So, can’t they be policed or monitored? With athletes staying away from national camps and frequently going on corporate-sponsored exposure jaunts abroad, it’s a difficult ask.
Even the camps aren’t safe, something proved convincingly by the Narsingh Yadav doping episode. Despite the grainy sting operation done on SAI hostel cooks, forensics of the spiked daal and the FIR naming a junior wrestler, it is still not clear who masterminded the conspiracy against India’s big medal hope at Rio. This was a new low for Indian sports. There is collateral damage too. The country’s greatest-ever OIympian was painted as a sneaky manipulator, who, they tweeted, was heartlessly settling an old score.
The wrestling federation officials and government’s top sports administrators were openly taking sides. This isn’t how a professional sporting set-up should react when faced with a grave crisis. But after those manic days, there is sudden silence now. Narsingh is in the clear but there is a thick smoke blanket around wrestling. No one is talking about the grave allegations carelessly thrown around some time back. Considering the sudden truce between the warring camps, it is clear that dirt is being brushed under the carpet.
At the root of this unwanted controversy is the arbitrary way in which federations work and how they succumb to the pressures of factions. When Sushil asked for a trial and Narsingh refused, the federation didn’t have a convincing answer. There were no rules set in stone, no firm voice of reason. Wrestling has a professional league and big corporate funding but its officials were acting like organisers of a village dangal. When faced with a difficult decision to decide a winner, they were getting influenced by the powerful front row voices.
In days to come, it will be clear whether or not India made the right choice in picking its Olympians. We will know if India picked the right doubles pair and the best wrestler in the 74 kg category. In case there is a drop in the medal count from last time, and if wrestling and tennis are responsible for that, India will need to seriously reevaluate priorities. If you want to excel in modern sports, you need comprehensive plans with everyone on the same page. For that you need to get rid of many things from the amateur days. You could start by letting the women decide if they want to wear the blazer over the saree.