It was mildly amusing how a young gymnast not used to being in the spotlight had the presence of mind to be politically right amid all the chaos around her. Overnight, Dipa Karmakar has become the toast of the country’s sporting fraternity. And all off a sudden, everyone wants a piece of her. There were officials with garlands, children with huge posters of her, television journalists shoving microphones down her throat and cameras following her every move as she made her way out of the airport terminal.
But Dipa didn’t fumble. She said the right things to keep the ‘right’ people happy. The 22-year-old thanked the sports ministry and expressed gratitude towards the Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI), although the long-standing tiff between the two impacted her and other gymnasts significantly. Yet, it wasn’t enough to prevent an intense tug of war between the two bodies in their attempt to ‘own’ her and, to a certain extent, take credit for her feat of becoming the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.
The GFI had organised a felicitation programme at a plush Delhi Aerocity hotel on Thursday morning. It was scheduled just a couple of hours after Dipa landed in Delhi. But while the GFI top-brass along with India’s chef de mission for the Olympics, Rakesh Gupta, waited for the gymnast to arrive at the venue, she was whisked away to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) complex directly from the airport by its officials. Some members waiting at the hotel got to know about it only when SAI’s Twitter handle posted pictures of her with director general Injetti Srinivas. She was later felicitated by sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal at his office.
Whether it was a simple case of miscommunication or a genuine attempt at ‘sabotaging’ GFI’s event is unknown. But the federation’s vice-president Riyaz Bhati was adamant that it was a ‘hijack’ by the sports ministry and SAI. “As a federation, it is our duty to recognise her performance. We have mothered Dipa since the time she started playing the sport. The sports ministry is just a step mother. They are trying to take all the credit, which isn’t right,” Bhati said. “Yes, the ministry has paid for her training and other things but Dipa has been able to participate in international events only because of us. This is a clear case of ministry sabotaging and hijacking our event.”
The ministry, on its part, highlighted the financial support it has provided even as the federation continued to be embroiled in mismanagement. There is a degree of truth to both. SAI DG Srinivas, a former joint secretary in the sports ministry, tried to keep the funding going by ignoring the red tape even though the federation was suspended, while also supplying necessary equipment.
Srinivas was not willing to comment on the issue. Another ministry official insisted there was nothing wrong in them claiming credit. “All the funding, planning and training stints were prepared by SAI in consultation with Dipa and her coach. The SAI even pays the coach’s salary. What has the federation done?” the official questioned.
The GFI isn’t really known for its efficiency either. Four years back, its callous attitude resulted in CWG and Asian Games medallist Ashish Kumar missing out on the Olympics. Dipa left for the test-cum-qualifying event in Rio as one of the victims of official apathy and indifference that made her task of qualifying for the Olympics look Herculean. She somehow vaulted over all hurdles to make the cut for the Games while also clinching the gold medal in the process to become the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.
The ministry, too, has been opportunistic. Curiously, Dipa has received financial support only after she qualified for the Games. The ministry failed to identify her potential and decided not to include her in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme initially. However, within minutes of her qualification, they granted her Rs 30 lakh under the initiative.
But it’s not just the ministry and federation who are trying to make most of Dipa’s feat. She is being chased by several sports management firms as well, who are keen to sign her up and manage her off-field affairs till the Olympics. More felicitations and official functions are expected when she reaches Tripura on Friday.
Somehow, though, she managed to hold her own. She knows qualification is only job half done. “I am not a star. It’s nothing like that. I just want to work hard.”