Ramachandran: ‘It’s nice to come out of it all’

"The only regret, I must say, is our inability to take squash to the Olympics. That was a big minus. We did our best and everybody knows that. But looking back, there is the satisfaction that we could get squash into the shortlist," says N. Ramachandran, the former president of the World Squash Federation.

N. Ramachandran... "It was quite challenging to wear two hats at the same time - the WSF and the IOA.   -  V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

“A big relief,” said N. Ramachandran, who was in a relaxed mood in his corporate office in Chennai, about the end of his tenure as president of the World Squash Federation. The first Indian to head the world body, Ramachandran’s term was marked by highs and lows. However, overall, he felt that he had done his job capably and as best as he could.

Ramachandran was disappointed that he could not get squash into the Olympics but was satisfied that the sport had earned greater visibility during his tenure.

A veteran sports administrator, who has completed nearly two decades in international squash (he was earlier the president of the Asian Squash Federation), Ramachandran wants to devote his time to Indian squash. “My passion for the sport will never stop,” he said while speaking to Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you feel after laying down office as president of the World Squash Federation?

Answer: A big sense of relief, indeed. My travelling has come down; the hectic schedules have ended. For the last eight years, it was quite challenging wearing two hats at the same time — you know the WSF and the IOA (Indian Olympic Association) — and protecting their interests. It was not easy. Overall, I was in international squash for two decades and it is nice to come out of it all.

Any unfinished work?

Yes, I should think so. When I got the Olympic award from the IOC president, Dr. Thomas Bach, at the Rio Games, the citation had clearly stated that I had improved the profile of squash within the Olympic Movement. Squash should have been in the Olympics, if you ask me, but unfortunately for various reasons it is not. So, to that extent, I will say that little bit of work, of getting squash into the Olympics, has remained unfinished. The WSF’s efforts had begun more than 15 years before I came in. Earlier, it was Susie Simcock, the former president, and then in Jehangir Khan’s time the efforts had begun, and then again in the eight years when I was the president... Somehow, it has eluded all of us.

 

It was a rare honour to head the WSF, but how difficult was it to run the world body?

It was definitely difficult. In a way, it was managing varied interests. The challenges in managing an international sports body, and that too one recognised by the IOC, are plenty. In the WSF, let me tell you, we have this system of weighted voting. That is, some countries have six votes, some have four and most others just one. So the situation is that, the countries that have six votes each, and they hardly number six or seven, take the stand that their views have to always be given added importance, or taken into account. It is like allowing a country with six votes to control the sport. In a body that has over 140 countries affiliated to it, such a system gives rise to difficult moments. It would have been ideal if the WSF followed the one-country-one-vote pattern, just as even the IOC does, for better governance and for the betterment of squash in general. Though this peculiar situation did not raise too many hurdles for me, in hindsight it is my view that the earlier the WSF switches to the system followed everywhere, the better for the sport. As for my time in the WSF, let me say Asia supported me the most though I did not have any problem with any country. Everything boiled down to skilful management.

Looking back, what are the changes that you brought about?

We changed the scoring system to rally points. Now this was important because earlier the sport was considered boring. We convinced the IOC that even though the squash balls were small, they could still be easily seen on television. To that extent, the IOC also admitted that squash had the potential of being TV-friendly. They also accepted that the profile of squash within the Olympic Movement would increase considerably. In my time, more tournaments were conducted through the Tour operator, the PSA (Professional Squash Association).

Another area of improvement was in refereeing. We increased the number of world referees, the panel of international referees of the WSF, I mean. We also located WSF tournaments in all parts of the globe. And of course, in the area of innovations, we gave the thrust to the idea of portable courts, which made the conduct of a squash event at any venue, from a busy market square and malls to the seaside sands, a simple exercise. For this latter benefit, my big thanks to the world-renowned court manufacturers, ASB, for their vision and support.

And all these innovations and improvements faced no problems in getting the support in the WSF?

I must admit that the WSF Board, the governing body, fully supported me as also the member-nations. No regrets there.

Did the WSF also get the benefit of increased sponsorship money and become rich?

I will not say that. Many of the major tournaments were already given to the PSA even before I came in, so nothing additional was derived there to add to the income. But yes, some revenue models were brought in, like the introduction of player registration annual fee called SPIN, which is a money-spinner. We introduced coaches’ registration, another money-spinner. Additionally, we increased the fees of accredited companies of the WSF. At the last AGM in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, it was decided to increase the membership fee. So, that is an added source of revenue.

 

Do you have any regrets?

Yes, the only regret, I must say, is our inability to take squash to the Olympics. That was a big minus. We did our best and everybody knows that. Let me also say, there was all-round support, from all member nations, in all aspects for our movement. There was also no lack of finance. There were, however, other reasons — very many in fact, which I do not wish to go into now. But yes, looking back there is the satisfaction that we could get squash into the shortlist. The sport is visible now and everybody in the IOC is aware how keen we were to see it in the Olympics programme. We have paved the way for the sport to be accepted. With the Olympics likely to be held in one of the cities in either France or the United States after Tokyo 2020, and squash being popular in both these countries, the chances of the sport’s inclusion are high. France, in fact, has top-ranked world players like Gregory Gaultier (World No. 2) and Camille Serme (World No. 6). So, squash’s entry into the Olympics may not be too far away. When it happens, surely history will record the efforts we had taken to this end.

What is the state of squash now?

There is a gap. Squash has to spread in Africa beyond Egypt, where the development is at its highest. Improvement has to come in the Pan-American countries and Europe too. In Europe, squash has had a dip. It was very popular earlier, but has plateaued since. One reason for this is the disappearance of clubs. Many of the clubs have been sold because they were land-backed and the interest-holders have found selling a better option for profitable returns. Now, this not worrisome as such, but the ground reality could have been a lot healthier. As of now, squash has good support in Asia and the US. I would say watch out for Malaysia, Hong Kong and India. In recent times, Jordan has done well, and Kuwait too. Significantly, most of the big-money tournaments are in Asia and I feel this zone will be a strong force. In Asia, there are 26 member countries out of the 145 affiliated units in the world.

What are your plans for the future?

I go back to where it all started, and that is squash in India. Now that I am out of looking into the interests of all member countries, my thoughts are back on India. I have always dreamt of seeing an Indian emerge as world champion. It did not happen during my tenure as president of the WSF, But I will continue to chase that dream. As you know, the launch of the academy was the turning point in the growth of squash in the country. Having more such academies in the country is something I intend looking into.

As the WSF president, you would have met and mingled with some of the top sports administrators. Any memories that you cherish?

Yes, that is true. I did meet a variety of them. But the ones that impressed me the most were both IOC presidents, one former and the other present — Jacques Rogge and Thomas Bach. What struck me was their energy and ability to interact with people of all kinds, from presidents and prime ministers to other top dignitaries apart from sports officials. Besides, they travel virtually every other day. It can be gruelling. Phenomenal, I must say. I have had the privilege of learning much from them and my thoughts and prayers will always be with them.

What is the status of the IOA update regarding Niti Aayog?

We have written (to the Sports Ministry) that we don’t understand the rationale behind the move, but (we have said) if it is a way to monitor the money sent to National Federations (it is fine). We cannot be treated as an NGO. The IOA plans to have a meeting with the new Sports Secretary, Injeti Srinivas, and have a discussion with him on Niti Aayog, along with other issues relating to national sports federations and state Olympic associations.

What about the in-fighting in the boxing, gymnastics and basketball federations?

All the issues will be discussed at the IOA AGM, scheduled for December 27 in Chennai. We are clear about one thing: if you are not listening to us (IOA), we will not send your entries to international tournaments. So, stop the in-fighting.