One spot, three candidates, and the lure of an Asiad medal. With just 24 days to go for the Asian Games to start in Jakarta, some of India’s best women sailors are stuck in the middle of a selection storm.
The Yachting Federation of India (YAI) wants the country’s top three pairs to travel to Jakarta a fortnight before next month’s Asian Games begin — not as a part of their preparation, but to engage in a battle with each other in a last-ditch attempt to determine the team for women’s 49er FX category.
The YAI is acting on a July 19 order of the Delhi High Court, which stepped in to end the long-standing impasse following a petition filed by sailor Varsha Gautham. The 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist alleged arbitrariness in the selection process, claiming that she and her crew member Sweta Shervegar deserved to be selected ahead of Ekta Yadav and Shaila Charis, the federation’s original choice.
Then, in a late twist, Chennai’s Aishwarya Nedunchezhiyan, Varsha’s former teammate, also staked her claim. To avoid further controversies, and also make the trials more competitive, the federation decided to invite her for the trials as well. The trials are likely to be held in Jakarta from August 5 to 8 — the opening ceremony is on August 18.
YAI secretary general Anil Anand said there was very little time to organise the trials in India since one team — Ekta and Shaila — is already in Jakarta, along with their boats. “So the logical option at this point is to hold a re-trial there and select the team for the Games,” Anand said.
The dilemma began with a selection process that looked straightforward at the beginning but got murkier as months passed by. The YAI, in its general body meeting last December, decided to conduct just one trial, as close as possible to the Games, with the winners getting selected for the Asian Games.
The race was held in Chennai in April after the coach of the Indonesian team, which was preparing for the Asiad in the Southern city, declared that the conditions there were very similar to Jakarta. Ekta and Shaila won that trial rather comfortably, finishing ahead of Aishwarya and Varsha. Sticking to the rules, the federation proposed Ekta and Shaila’s names for the Games, pending approval from the government and Indian Olympic Association.
But last month, at the Asian Sailing Championship in Jakarta, where each side could field two teams, Varsha and Sweta came from behind to win the silver ahead of the Ekta-Shaila combination. Upon their return, Varsha argued that she and her crew member should be considered for the Asian Games, since the Asian Championship medal held more significance. When the YAI did not budge, Varsha approached the Delhi High Court. While that hearing was going on, Aishwarya also cried foul, claiming she should be given a chance ahead of Varsha as she was better of the two at the selection trials held in April.
Ultimately, the court ordered the YAI to conduct fresh trials. But the story is far from over. The Indian federation hasn’t got a go-ahead from its Indonesian counterparts to rent their venue while the availability of international referee and judges too remains doubtful.
The process could end up costing the YAI up to Rs 20 lakh, which includes the cost of renting the venue, fees for the technical officials and other logistical expenses. However, more than the financial impact, the YAI is concerned that the last-minute development could cost them a medal.
The Games were seen as the best chance for Indian sailors to leave their mark on the continental level. In the previous edition, Varsha and Aishwarya won a bronze in the 29er class, the only medal India’s 15-member team could manage.
Ajay Narang, a senior YAI official, says they have projected at least a gold and a silver based on the sailors’ performances at the Asian Championship. “We are sure of winning the gold in the men’s section while in the women, we are slightly behind the Singaporean pair but the coach and sailors are hopeful of closing the gap,” Narang said.
But former sailors and coaches believe a retrial so close to the Games could severely impact the medal chances. “This isn’t an ideal scenario and can impact the performance of the sailors during the Asian Games. This is a period when they should be fine tuning their preparations. Instead, the mental and physical exertion owing to a selection trial could leave them exhausted even before the Games begin,” a former sailor said.