At the Incheon Asian Games four years ago, the women’s volleyball and handball teams finished eighth out of nine teams. Last year, they did not even compete in their respective continental championships. In triathlon, only two Indians feature in the top 100 of Asian rankings for men and women respectively. Whereas the country’s swimmers haven’t managed even one respectable finish at an elite Asian competition since Sandeep Sejwal’s pathbreaking bronze medal at the 2014 Asiad.
If the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and sports ministry’s selection criteria were to be enforced rather strcitly, then these — and a few other sports — would find it tough to make the cut for next month’s Asian Games. However, despite IOA insisting they have followed these guidelines, the inclusion of these sports in India’s 524-member contingent has raised a few eyebrows.
In March 2015, the sports ministry laid down strict selection criteria for individual and team events after a similar chaos preceded the contingent’s departure for the 2014 Asian Games. According to the norms, to be eligible for selection in individual events, an athlete – in the year preceding the event – had to match, or better, the performance by the sixth-placed finisher in the previous edition of the respective tournament. For team sports, the benchmark was set at top-eight ranking in the one year prior to the event.
Last month, the IOA released its own selection criteria, which was broadly based on the ministry’s guidelines. IOA president Narender Batra said they haven’t deviated from these guidelines while finalising the contingent on June 30, the deadline set by Olympic Council of Asia. But certain discrepancies have cropped up and it has been alleged that some sports have been preferred because of the presence of their federation officials in IOA’s committees.
Take, for instance, the volleyball teams. The men and women’s teams did not compete in the Asian Championships last year due to the in-fighting in the federation. Prior to that, in 2015, the men’s team were placed 11th in the final standings, a sharp drop from the fifth place they achieved at the 2014 Asian Games. The women, meanwhile, were 10th at the 2015 Asian Championships, once again, unable to match their Asiad performance, where they finished eighth out of nine teams. The international rankings, too, have not been maintained for the last one year, adding to the ambiguity.
It’s a similar story for the women’s handball team, who have largely been inactive over the last 12 months. Batra, however, claimed the team is ranked fifth in Asia and hence has been included. “We have been given the latest rankings and as per that, they meet the criteria. Since they are ranked fifth in Asia, they must be of some standard,” Batra said. The rankings, though, aren’t available on the Asian Handball Federation website.
In canoe-kayak, India’s team strength is 19. At the previous Asian Championships, more than half of the team did not reach the final. In fact, only seven out of the 17 did and there was just one top-six finish. It’s a similar scenario in cycling and swimming, where most athletes have struggled to achieve a top 10 finish in the Asian Championships of their respective disciplines, let alone matching the top-six standard from the previous Games.
A total of 34 rowers are a part of the contingent but at the Asian Championships last year, India managed to win just one medal (a bronze) while a bulk of them could not meet the criteria which says the athlete should record a performance equivalent of top-six finish from the previous edition of the Games.
India have struggled in table tennis as well but Batra said the recent performances at the Commonwealth Games – where the standard is far lower than the Asian Games – meant they were given an exemption. Regarding triathlon, where Indians are nowhere close to Asian standards but still selected, Batra said: “This is the first time triathlon has been included in the Asian Games so we had to look at it differently.”
Curiously, officials from most of these federations are also a part of IOA’s executive board. Anandeshwar Pandey, the secretary of Handball Federation of India, is also the IOA’s treasurer while HFI’s CEO Surinder Bali is among the joint secretaries in the IOA. Balbir Singh Kushwaha, secretary of the canoeing and kayaking federation, is also an executive committee member of the IOA while Swimming Federation’s CEO Virendra Nanavati remains an influential member of the Olympic body. Rowing, volleyball and triathlon, too, are well-represented in the IOA.
Batra, however, has denied such claims. “I have personally verified all entries and they meet the criteria. There has been no interference or influence,” he said.