Is India in danger of being banned from the 2012 London Olympics? It would appear so judging from the noises emanating from the offices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). India has never boycotted an Olympic Games since the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) first sent an official delegation to Amsterdam in 1928. That is a rare blemishless record considering the spate of boycotts that bedeviled the Olympics movement from 1976 to 1988.
But a crisis has been looming for the last couple of years. The UPA government first under sports minister MS Gill and now under Ajay Maken have been aggressively pushing the National Sports Development Bill that is due to be tabled in Parliament’s monsoon session. The Bill seeks to limit the tenure of office-bearers of national sports federations and also fix an age limit for them of 70 years.
It is public knowledge that sports federations in India have been run by a small group of officials, many of them over 70, for decades now. It is also well known that the vast majority of them happen to be politicians. And that India’s abysmal record at the Olympics is a matter of shame for the world’s second most populous nation.
So why are our politicians inexorably drawn to sports officialdom in the first place? It is not that too many of them have ever been active sportspersons. The reasons would appear to be threefold — holding senior positions in sports federations is an easy route to power, pelf and ego.
Never before in independent India has one witnessed the sight of politicians cutting across party lines and joining hands as they have done to protest the Bill, seeing as it threatens to curtail their reins.The aftermath of last year’s Commonwealth Games has landed a number of senior IOA officials in jail on corruption charges. This, however, has not stopped those on the outside from expressing their outrage over the proposed Bill on the grounds of it infringing their autonomy, something they claim the IOC holds sacred. Or does it? India is also the world’s largest democracy. And if the Bill is passed by Parliament, it would be a fine case of democracy in action.
That is more than can be said for nations across Africa, Asia and the Arab world where democracy is a distant dream. Totalitarian North Korea sees the president aka ‘Dear Leader’, invariably a member of the Kim family, automatically take over as head of the National Olympic Committee. It is not much different in China, host of the last Olympics in Beijing, where government control over the NOC is considered de rigueur. Yet it is India that is apparently under threat of banishment from the London Olympics on the grounds of governmental interference. In fact a perusal of the latest Olympic Charter in force since February 11, 2010, shows that autonomy is not one of the ‘Fundamental Principles of Olympism’ which are laid out prominently at the very top of the charter.
Principles 4 and 5 state that “the practice of sport is a human right” and that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”.It is on the issue of gender equality that the IOC finds itself on shaky ground.
For while the number of women at the Olympic Games has grown by leaps and bounds, there are still three nations that have never sent a sportswoman to the Olympics — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. Many others, most prominently Iran, impose severe restrictions on their participation in the sporting arena. Yet the IOC has never threatened these nations with suspension.
A clear case then of double standards and hypocrisy.
( Gulu Ezekiel is a sports journalist and co-author of Great Indian Olympians )
The views expressed by the author are personal