Interference of politics in sport

POLITICS and sport. This theme takes the centre-stage whenever the Government issues a fiat to the sports institutions to avoid participating in or against countries or events fearing a threat to competitors.

POLITICS and sport. This theme takes the centre-stage whenever the Government issues a fiat to the sports institutions to avoid participating in or against countries or events fearing a threat to competitors. Not surprisingly, the reaction to the decision of the Government to stay away from the South Asian Games at Islamabad this month is mixed. Suresh Kalmadi, President, Indian Olympic Association, calls the decision as needless interference of politics in sport, and this can affect the image of the country. In fact, he has even said that non-participation at Islamabad will send wrong signals to the international community, many of whom are keen to visit India for the proposed Afro-Asian Games in October.

Whether the Government is prepared to re-examine its stand on the SAF Games is not easy to decipher, given the deteriorating relations at all levels between India and Pakistan. The deliberations at the recent Non-Aligned Conference (NAM) at Kuala Lumpur have only accentuated the stand-off. But Kalmadi is striving hard to impress on the Prime Minister to alter the directive in the best traditions of sport and has also succeeded in roping as many as 60-odd Members of Parliament in a signature campaign.

Even in the best of times, sport has never been insulated from political impact, whatever be the means and modes advocated by the father of modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In more than one essay, the Baron feared the Games he revived in 1896 would be hijacked by political bosses, or commercial interests. His fears proved true when Adolf Hitler used the Games to project the Aryan supremacy in 1936 in Berlin, even though the Baron visualised the shadow of Hitler looming large on sporting activities even in the early 30s. So, sport as the instrument in the hands of the powerful has always been coloured by political influences.

Quite predictably, the decision of the Union Government on the SAF Games has stemmed on account of the national sentiment, the intensity of which peaked after the Kargil conflict. The refusal to engage Pakistan in cricket at any venue emerged as a form of respecting the national opinion as also the means to eliminate the scourge of match-fixing and betting whenever these two teams clashed. It is true that the Government did not overtly take notice of contacts in other disciplines, like volleyball, squash both here and across the border. But in events where extraordinary fervour is generated like in cricket and hockey care has to be taken to ensure the participants are not demoralised by conscious whipping up of passion by sections palpably anti-Indian. The outcome is always linked to national honour, and concept of nationalism being what it is now, there is every chance of passions getting the better of reason and sporting dignity. Instances of cricketers and hockey players heckled in a display of mass hysteria have been many, and none is willing to forget the attack by a fan on the Indian skipper, Krish Srikkanth in Karachi in 1989. On more than one occasion, the incidents during the hockey match between India and Holland in the 1990 World Cup are recalled to reinforce the depressing scenario of high tension security.

Seasoned sports administrators should evaluate the Government's decision against the backdrop of these ugly events than mouthing homilies of politics. Ironically, a majority of the federations have a politican, or a group of them at the helm including the Indian Olympic Association. Are these men and women willing to quit the scene so that sport is really and truly de-linked from politics?

Admittedly, sporting contacts with Pakistan ever since partition continue to exist in some form or the other. While bilateral cricket series began within five years after independence, it took nearly three decades to work out a Test series between the countries in hockey. It is unfortunate that both today remain deadlocked as far as playing here or across the border goes. The 9/11 incident has transformed the complete security scenario in the sub-continent, notably in Pakistan, where several international events were postponed or shifted out on account of fears expressed by the participating countries. That the SAF Games originally slated to be held at Peshawar were brought to Islamabad underscores the apprehension of the host to conduct the events in the troubled North West Frontier. The event had to be postponed by a year after the terrorist strike on U.S.

India was very much part of the 1989 venture when Pakistan held the SAF Games in the same city. But today, the conditions are vastly different and dangerous from India's standpoint. The IOA would do well to see the whole exercise in the right perspective and go along with the Government than to come out with empty rhetoric that does not jell with reality.