When excellence is ignored

COMMITTEES have been set up to redraft guidelines, selection panels have been changed every year and screening systems tightened up.

COMMITTEES have been set up to redraft guidelines, selection panels have been changed every year and screening systems tightened up. Yet, controversies have followed the Union Government's sports awards selection through the years. If anything, things look to have gone from bad to worse during the past three years, though every effort seems to have been made to bring about an impartial, methodical selection.

Then, what can possibly go wrong? Plenty, if you ask sportspersons who wait in vain year after year to see their names in the lists; very little, if you ask the men and women who make the choice. You cannot please every sportsperson and every section of the fraternity in such selections and we have to accept that there would always be the odd debate about a particular choice, no matter how painstakingly panels might have gone about their task.

But when ground rules are broken right at the outset, when people shut their eyes at what is seemingly clear-cut choices and when achievements at the Asian Games level are apparently equated with unknown competitions in Belarus or Poland, in the guise of fulfilling the requirement for `international performances' for a chosen few, it is time to take stock all over again.

Before we do that, we have to go back a little in time to have a better idea about the selection procedure. It was in 2002, following the rejection of the `life-time Arjuna award' by Milkha Singh the previous year, that the then Sports Minister, Uma Bharti, brought about changes in the selection panels. Ministers and politicians were kept out and more sportspersons brought in.

Two separate panels are set up each year, one for the Arjuna Award and the other for the Dronacharya Award. National federations and State governments make the initial recommendations. Everyone welcomed the step in bringing in more sportspersons in the selection panels. But the controversies have remained, even to the extent of prompting eligible sportspersons to suggest that the age-old system of political manipulations was better!

This year, a few choices and a few omissions have triggered a debate. Most glaring was the omission of high jumper Bobby Aloysius, who was being recommended for the fourth year in a row. To be an Asian Games silver winner and still dismissed so lightly, was something Bobby could not stomach. She quit the sport in disgust, saying that instead of the award supporting the athlete it was demoralising them. Bobby's is an extreme reaction to a situation she had not bargained for in the twilight of her career.

But it is symptomatic of the frustrations that top-level sportspersons have to endure in our country from the day they try to get into National limelight, through their international career and eventually at the time when they look for recognition through awards.

A glance at the Arjuna awardees list since 1961 will show that there are a number of athletes who have not even won an individual bronze in the Asian Games. Then how can one continue to ignore the claims of those who have won Asian Games silvers apart from Asian championship golds?

The recent stipulation that only performances in `international' competitions should count, has not helped matters much, for, basic norms continue to be flouted.

Filling up numbers in particular disciplines also seems illogical when there are better-qualified contenders in other sport. If overall performance is being considered in a particular sport, say cricket, the same yardstick has to be applied across the board. If an Afro-Asian Games medal is not worth consideration in athletics, an unknown `international' in Belarus or Vietnam should not be good enough in judo or wrestling either.

Notwithstanding the failure of the Sports Ministry to take up improvements suggested by a review panel, here are a few points that could be pursued in case the ministry is keen to revamp the system. There could be smaller panels than the present ones that contain a dozen members. A further reduction in bureaucratic presence, other than to guide the members, will help. There has to be a clear-cut differentiation between major games and championships and the so-called `internationals'.

There should be no anxiety to award Dronacharya if there are no suitable candidates in sight. Long-term contributions rather than instant success should be the main plank to assess a coach's calibre.

Let there be no restriction on the specific year in which a performance should have been recorded. We have to honour outstanding performance and contribution down the years and not get bogged down with this clause about `excellence for the year' concerned.