On Monday, 32 days before the Rio Olympics and 116 years after India’s first registered Olympic participation, former and current Olympians of the country gathered to mark the launch of the Olympians Association of India.
The body, registered as a non-profit organisation, aims to provide a platform to address athletes’ concerns. However, that many of the assembled athletes, especially those who would make their debut at the Olympics, did not know how and why this organisation has been formed shows the path ahead is not smooth.
In a nation that defines itself as ‘Socialist’ in the Preamble of its Constitution, unions have oddly come to be frowned upon. In a sporting culture where the administrators, most who have no background in sport, have the first and last say, a players’ union could be viewed as rebellion. For now, however, the Olympians association is working with the sports ministry, and collaboration seems to be the buzzword.
“It is not necessarily a voice of dissent all the time, it is also a voice of strength. It is not against the federation, but it is with the federation. We work with the federation, with the government,” said former sailor Malav Shroff, general secretary of the body.
“As a community we must get together, have empathy towards each other. A decent standard of living should be guaranteed to everyone. They shouldn’t be languishing somewhere because in the time they were competing they could have done their graduation,” said Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan, the president.
“There are a lot of issues we are going to identify for Olympians to reintegrate into society, corporate life, sports management, coaching and such. It is from psychological help to actual placement, post-career educational courses and so on. Athletes bring in problems from their career, like injuries. They have to incur medical expenses well after they stop competing. Who is going to take care of that? We will have a medical insurance programme for anyone contacting us, provided for free. We are talking to a few sponsors right now on this. This is a base need,” he added.
“Another thing is to talk to the ministry to extend the pension scheme to all Olympians. To reach the Olympics is in itself an achievement and takes a long time. Whoever has done that should get a basic pension. Of course, whoever is doing well (financially) won’t avail of it. But they are people who need it.”
Besides taking care of the needs of athletes after the closure of their playing careers, such as helping them graduate and get a corporate job, the organisation also endeavours to mentor young athletes on media management, anti-doping, etc.
From track to office
Though the organisation is not explicitly pushing for it, another long-term objective is to have more sports personalities in administration.
“There is an atmosphere of fear that has been created in which athletes are not welcome to participate in sports administration, and this is unfortunate,” said Keshavan.
“What everybody must understand is athletes are not coming here to take over and throw you out. First and foremost, the objective is to work together for the country. Athletes are the ones with firsthand experience. But there is resistance to it. I urge everyone to have a vision, to understand that they can also go much further if they take athletes in confidence and that is why collaboration is important.”