Change is the need of the hour

Defying the world body… Lalit Bhanot, who was recently elected the secretary-general of the IOA, casts his ballot during the election for vice-president, joint secretary and executive council members of the IOA in New Delhi. A defiant IOA went ahead with its elections, clearly challenging the IOC’s authority to impose sanctions on it.-AP

The suspension of the Indian Olympic Association by the International Olympic Committee, followed by the International Boxing Federation derecognising the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation and the sanctions imposed by the ministry against the boxing and archery federations may well lead to a clean up of the system. By K. P. Mohan.

For the past two years, one has quite often heard the refrain, “the IOC will never suspend India; we are not a small country to be sanctioned.”

Finally, when word came from Lausanne on December 4 that suspension was being slapped on India, those who believed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be overawed by India’s stature in world polity and would never resort to an extreme step, were proved wrong.

After having warned the IOA that its elections under the National Sports Code, on a court order, would be in violation of its own constitution and the Olympic Charter, the IOC informed it of the move to take the suspension issue to its Executive Board and then suspended the Indian body a day before the scheduled elections.

A defiant IOA went ahead with its elections, aggravating the situation and clearly challenging the IOC’s authority to impose sanctions on it.

Things became complicated and murkier after that. There might yet be no immediate danger to India’s participation in the Olympics and the Asian Games, though on paper, the country is barred from these events. But they are still some distance away and a solution surely should emerge within the next couple of months at least.

At the centre of the row is the set of government guidelines on tenure and age of office-bearers of the National Sports Federations (NSFs), including the IOA. The original guidelines date back to the Emergency days of 1975.

The guidelines were changed over a period of time, but the basic tenure guidelines remained the same. The IOA and several NSFs amended their constitutions and brought in the guidelines in the late 1970s though sometime in the 1980s, under the stewardship of V. C. Shukla, the IOA threw out the tenure guidelines from its constitution and gradually the federations, too, followed suit. Since then these guidelines had been observed more in the breach until a court case brought them to the fore again and eventually, the then Sports Minister, M. S. Gill, modified and notified them in May 2010.

Gill explained — and primarily that has remained the main argument of the government ever since — he had only borrowed what was there in the Olympic Charter and had in fact given a concession to the president’s post by extending the maximum term to 12 instead of the previous eight.

In due course of time, the guidelines became part of the National Sports Development Code of India, a loosely knit collection of government circulars, orders and guidelines. Soon after that, practically everything in that code, in a concise format, plus a few other provisions were brought into the draft National Sports Bill that has remained within the ministry files after objections were raised in a Cabinet meeting in August last year.

This is where the IOC got involved in the whole debate, first the enforcement of the guidelines and then prospects of an Act of Parliament to regulate sports in India. The IOC not only owns the Olympic Games, it also controls the Olympic Movement, which, in simpler terms, means it has a say in how international sports federations deal with principles and ethical issues enshrined in the Charter and expects them to support it when disciplinary measures are taken. The IOC also intervenes when excessive government interference occurs at the national level though in most of the cases such measures are normally in defence of an NOC rather than against it.

The Indian Boxing team at the Olympic Games Village in London. The AIBA's decision to derecognise the IABF is a big blow to the Indian boxers.-PTI

If in 2010 and 2011, the IOC was an unqualified supporter of the IOA in what it perceived was its fight against government interference in the functioning of the autonomous sports federations and the National Olympic Committee (NOC), today it has suspended the NOC and is threatening to take further action if things are not sorted out only because it feels the IOA is in the wrong. But is the IOC actually suggesting that the Government of India’s Sports Code is in violation of the Olympic Charter and thus should be resisted? Or is it telling the IOA that it would be better to amend its constitution to bring in the much-needed reforms, measure up to the principles of good governance which the Olympic Congress of 2009 had espoused, and sign the peace treaty with all parties concerned?

If one is able to understand the implicit message in the letter of November 23, signed by the IOC chief, Jacques Rogge, it is clear the IOC wants the IOA to be firm in either choosing the guidelines, without breaching the Olympic Charter, or rejecting them and sticking to its stand.

The IOC obviously is not convinced by the IOA’s explanation that it has to respect the “law of the land” though the IOC chief and the Olympic Congress are on record that the laws of a country should be respected unless of course they are diametrically opposite to the Olympic values or doctrine or are extremely intrusive.

Critics point out that the IOC has conveniently and selectively used the ‘government interference’ argument through the years while tolerating blatant breaches of the Charter. They also point out that at least this time the IOC has gone solely by the advice of its member in India, Randhir Singh, and did not bother to listen to any other view. There is some justification in this argument since Randhir was not just the secretary-general of the IOA and was fully aware of the scheduled elections and the implications, but he was also a candidate.

For two years, if not more, both the IOC and the IOA (and even the ministry) just kept pulling out a regular quota of e-mails either to pressure each other or to explain each other’s position. The Sports Ministry’s attempts in 2010 to send its Joint Secretary to Lausanne to sort matters out might have made an impression though it did not produce a clear-cut formula to solve the impasse. From getting closer to implementing reforms, the IOA tended to go back to its old ways, amending constitutions at will and ignoring warnings from the IOC and the government. Along the way came ethical issues that were either pushed to the background by the IOA or else allowed to drag even as the NSFs, forced by resource crunch, bowed to government diktats.

It is obvious no one in sports administration wants government regulations to dictate their stay in NSFs. It is also obvious the government, public and the media want control to be exercised when public funds are made available for sports development in the country. Officials argue that tenure and age restrictions are not there for ministers or parliamentarians; then why should they be restricted?

The Commonwealth Games scams only accentuate the need to place controls and seek accountability. That today a large majority of the athletes, past and present, are against the administrators and their ways, is no secret. Those sportspersons within the NSFs, barring a few honourable exceptions, are either entrenched in the system, thanks to cliques operating successfully, or are past caring about reforms. Change is the need of the hour.

The IOC’s suspension of IOA, followed in quick succession by the International Boxing Federation (AIBA) derecognising the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) and the sanctions imposed by the ministry against the boxing and archery federations may well lead to a clean up of the system. If that happens, even the seemingly biased, if not the wrong-principled decision of the IOC would eventually be considered as something that happened for the good of Indian sports.