Bhaichung Bhutia's bold decision to boycott the Olympic torch relay On Tuesday evoked sharp reactions from sporting greats, who asserted that the Indian football captain should not have mixed sports with politics.
Bhutia, a Buddhist from Sikkim, has announced that he has sympathy for the Tibetans who are opposing the Beijing Olympic Games and would not run with the Olympic flame.
"I sympathise with the Tibetans' cause. I'm against violence but I thought I should stand by the Tibetan people in their fight," said Bhutia, who thus became the first Indian athlete ever to opt out of an Olympic torch relay. But the decision has not impressed hurdler GS Randhawa and 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh, who are among the legendary athletes invited to run in the April 17 relay in the national capital, who said a sporting arena was not the right place to make a political statement.
"Personally, I feel sports and politics should not be mixed. And I'll surely take part in the relay," Singh said.
The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) also made it clear that it would not persuade Bhutia to reconsider his pull-out, saying it respects the national soccer skipper's "personal decision".
The IOA Secretary General Randhir Singh said they had received Bhutia's letter detailing his reasons to opt out of the relay.
"As far we are concerned, we have a very simple theory. Sports and politics should not be mixed. It is Bhutia's personal decision and we respect that," Randhir Singh told
Randhawa said Bhutia did what he felt was right but for him, participating in the relay was an honour, which he would not like to miss.
"Whoever takes what stance is completely up to them. I think Olympics stands for peace and harmony and politics should not be allowed to mingle with sport.
"I have received an invitation from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and it's a matter of great pride and honour for me. I'll be there in the relay," said the legendary hurdler.
"If government is endorsing the relay and making all the arrangements, I think there is no reason for me to skip it," he said.
While former footballer Chuni Goswami felt Bhutia did the right thing by standing up for a cause that he believed in, other sportspersons like former Davis Cup captain Jaidip Mukerjea, swimmer Bula Chaudhary and hockey legend Gurbux Singh also harped on the point that politics should be kept away from the sporting arena.
"Bhaichung has done a great job. He feels for the Tibetans who have been oppressed and persecuted. And he feels all the more about the issue, as he is a Sikkimese and a Buddhist himself," Goswami said.
"I also do not subscribe to the view that sportspersons should not get involved in such political issues. Politics is a way of life, and you can't ignore it," he added.
"...One needs to remember what happened in Moscow Olympics, 1980 and at Los Angeles in the next edition of the mega event
four years later. The Moscow boycott triggered the counter-boycott in Los Angeles. There is no end to such things, and the only casualty is sports," warned Gurbux. MORE
"I would neither criticise nor appreciate Bhaichung for his stand. All said and done, this is his individual opinion," Gurbux said.
Bula felt Bhutia's decision was a result of Sikkim's proximity to Tibet and the emotional chord that the Tibetan movement strikes in the north eastern state.
"It depends on the psychology of the individual concerned. I don't want to go into whether the Tibetan movement is right or wrong. It's a debatable matter. But Bhutia belongs to Sikkim. He is emotional about the issue because of the state's proximity to Tibet," he said.
Jaidip also described the decision a personal choice. "Everyone has his own view of life. He comes from this area which has a strong ethnic Tibetan population. So he has sympathies for the cause of Tibet. He is also a Buddhist," he said.
Bhutia may be the first Indian athlete to show solidarity with the Tibetan movement but not the only one, several international celebrities have also come out against, what they describe as, the Chinese opression in the Tibet.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, swimmer Alain Bernard, celebrated Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, German chancellor Angela Merkel and actor Richard Gere are among the international figures who have supported the Tibetan movement while condemning China's tough stand on the matter.