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Don't dribble past this episode

We will probably never know the whole truth about what provoked 31 Indian women hockey players to sign a letter backing charges of sexual harassment against their coach, MK Kaushik. But if hockey's sleazy story taught me one thing, it is this: women athletes are expected to wash their coach's clothes, writes Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2010 22:00 IST
Namita Bhandare

We will probably never know the whole truth about what provoked 31 Indian women hockey players to sign a letter backing charges of sexual harassment against their coach, MK Kaushik. But if hockey's sleazy story taught me one thing, it is this: women athletes are expected to wash their coach's clothes.

Athlete Ashwini Nachappa says on national TV that this was 'mandatory' for athletes. Nobody blinks an eyelid or denies the charge, least of all coach Kaushik who quit after the charges were made public. Nachappa's revelation is so stomach-churning that all conspiracy theories (coach is a good man who is being targeted, complaints are dicey, case is not strong, scandal is timed to skew the Hockey India elections etc) fly out of the window.

Is this what our national women athletes have been reduced to? Washing the dirty linen of their coach after hours and off the field? More than the charges — making lewd comments, calling players to his hotel room and being seemingly oblivious to team videographer's pornographic photo display — it's the reactions that are astounding.

On one side you have the country's sports establishment. Our head of the Indian Olympic Association Suresh Kalmadi is uncharacteristically silent. Hockey India President Vidya Stokes, seeking re-election at 82, says the coach has resigned 'in order to clear his name'. Former India captain and inquiry committee member Zafar Iqbal says the charges are 'weak'. And Sudharshan Pathak, another committee member, says she is surprised that no allegations have previously been levelled against the coach.

Two things are apparent. The first, this is not a 'sex scandal', it is sexual harassment and should be investigated by an unbiased body, not the hockey boys' club cronies. And, second, as with all sexual harassment, this too is about the balance of power.

There is a third aspect that isn't so obvious. Workplaces tend to be male-dominated. But in sport, particularly in Indian sport, the balance is completely out of whack. All players (with the exception perhaps of cricket A-listers) play second fiddle to officials. For athletes, survival is about subservience. Getting into the team brings with it college admissions, jobs, a livelihood. But the centre of the system is the coach, not the player. He (and it is nearly always a he) has absolute power; who stays, who goes.

For women players, many from poor families, this power equation makes them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. We don't even know who these players are, what their names are, what they look like, what they dream of. Apart from an occasional Chak De, they remain absent from mainstream imagination. Sometimes talent will erupt and a Saina Nehwal, MC Mary Kom or PT Usha will break through. But we don't see the daily humiliations — or we do, when a star like Usha breaks down after being invited to an athletics meet in Bhopal where officials were too busy to either receive her or arrange for half-way decent accommodation.

When sexual harassment happens on Wall Street or international publishing, we seem to be programmed to respond in a set way: 'She dressed provocatively', 'she was denied a promotion', and, the latest, it was 'consensual flirting'. But in sport, where in the words of senior sports writer Sharda Ugra 'women's sport is secondary to everything else in this country', the problem is worse.

Women athletes simply do not have the redressal mechanisms that women in the organised sector are slowly beginning to have. They lack education, support and, most important, savvy. Helen Mary, former Indian goalkeeper who says she quit because of harassment by Kaushik, could not even begin to articulate words like pornography or sex, referring instead to 'nonsense things'. What chance do women like these have against a mighty sports establishment?

The truth about sexual exploitation in women's sport will probably never emerge. But a starting point could be, as former Indian Hockey Federation president K.P.S. Gill suggested, a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry. The irony seemed to escape everyone. Gill, alleged bottom pincher, was the only person who had come forward to try and restore some semblance of dignity to the girls.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.