Why are Indian sportspersons treated like dirt?

August 11, 2008. Abhinav Bindra, India’s first, and to date only, individual Olympic gold medallist takes the winners podium in Beijing wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts under his jacket. The faux pas is not an intentional one. For, the lean Bindra was left with no other option after being sent a pair of XXL trackpants by the powers that be.

Somdev Devvarman (above) and  Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna (below), three of the country’s leading tennis stars are part of the newly-formed Indian Tennis Players Association (ITPA) that was created to look after the interest of players. This is not the first time sportspersons have created their own forum to protest the way they are treated by the government-approved associations

While it is easy to dismiss such instances as minor operational glitches or accidents, it speaks volumes about what the player signifies to the administrator. Indian sport is rife with examples of such oversight: be it the then Indian Olympic Association (IOA) boss Suresh Kalmadi calling Bindra ‘Avinash’ after his triumph in the Beijing Olympics or silver medallist Vijay Kumar flying home economy class from London while IOA officials travel business or first class. As Bindra explains in his autobiography, ‘A Shot at History’, “They (officials and administrators) are often like some royal, pious granters of favours…I am their job, but I feel like their burden.” 

In his autobiography, ‘A Shot at History’, Abhinav Bindra explains, “They (officials and administrators) are often like some royal, pious granters of favours…I am their job, but I feel like their burden.” Pic/ Atul Kamble

Should it come as any surprise then when athletes, disgruntled and disillusioned with the system, mull quitting the sport itself or stand eyeball-to-eyeball against administrators? Just ask the nation’s boxers who, instead of honing their skills with the Olympics or Asian Games in mind, are currently in a state of limbo over their future after the International Boxing Association (AIBA) suspended the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) owing to ‘possible manipulation’ in its recent elections.

Or the country’s tennis stars who formed the Indian Tennis Players Association (ITPA) last week since ‘the existing structure of tennis administration in the country does not represent or adequately address contemporary issues faced by the players’. The formation of the players’ forum was the climax of a month-long wrangling between most of the nation’s top ranked tennis players and the All India Tennis Association (AITA) regarding issues like better payment, air travel, a say in the selection of support staff and venues for Davis Cup ties among others.

“The ITPA will be a potent platform to air the views of players. ITPA is a players’ collective and will highlight all issues faced by players at various levels. The structure of the AITA doesn’t allow players to have a significant say on crucial issues. We needed the ITPA to articulate player issues,” said Karti Chidambaram, Vice President of the AITA, in an e-mail to SUNDAY MiD DAY. Chidambaram, who is one of the founding members of the ITPA, has raised some eyebrows by standing in the players’ corner in the fight against the association.

Back to the wall
A players’ forum in itself is not a new concept in the country. Players’ associations have been around since 1989 when the Association of Indian Cricketers (AIC) was formed after players like Kapil Dev, Mohammad Azharuddin, Ravi Shastri and Dilip Vengsarkar were prohibited from playing festival matches in the US. However, lack of support from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and resolution of the main issue signalled the end of the association.

Twelve years later, cricket also saw the emergence of the Indian Cricket Players Association (ICPA) with players such as the late MAK Pataudi (President) and Arun Lal (Secretary) at the helm while Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble were the founding members. This association too, like its predecessor, is now defunct.

While little is known about why these associations never took off, former India player Balwinder Singh Sandhu believes that cricketers in the country do not need a players’ association. “There’s no need for a players’ association considering the BCCI takes such good care of the players — past and present. There have been two-three occasions in the past where a players’ association was formed. However, nothing happened after one or two meetings. The concept (of a players’ association) has not worked for the last 25 years, why should it work now? The association, in my opinion, won’t solve any purpose,” says Sandhu.

However, sportsmen from other disciplines will disagree with Sandhu. Sports like archery, football and chess have seen players’ associations with former football captain Bhaichung Bhutia’s brainchild Football Players Association of India and the Dola Banerjee-headed Archery Players Association of India finding popularity amongst players despite them not being recognised by the parent bodies in the country.  Point out the player associations that have fizzled out due to lack of patronage by the parent body and an unperturbed Chidambaram says, “The ITPA is an independent body. Whether the AITA recognises it or not is irrelevant at this stage. The ITPA cannot be ignored, it is here to stay.”

Up in arms
Player rebellions, too, are not new in a country where in January 2010, national hockey players boycotted a World Cup preparatory camp to demand a fixed monthly salary for the players and incentives for their performances of the previous year. The players were reportedly paid a pittance of $15 per day for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in May 2009 despite India winning the prestigious tournament after 14 years.

No sooner had that crisis been diffused, did the women’s hockey team take to the training field sporting black armbands as they had dues amounting to reportedly Rs three lakh per player. Rebellions such as these are a welcome sign that the times are changing, feels former world billiards champion Michael Ferreira.

“Players are no longer willing to sit down and take s**t from administrators who feel that they are the bosses as players’ selections are in their hands. The federations have to realise that they share a symbiotic relation with the players. Most top players now are not idiots,” Ferreira says.

Why players don’t administer
While every player, past or present, will have an anecdote or two about being denied their dues by callous administrators, a surprisingly small number of them enter administration to change the system that has wronged them. Chidambaram, a player himself, offers some insight into this apathy on the part of players. “Sports federations in India are made of state federations which are made up of district  federations and clubs. For an individual sportsperson to make his way up this structure is practically impossible,” he sighs.

Ferreira, who is currently president of the Billiards and Snookers Association of Maharashtra, is one of the rare players to have seen both sides of the coin. While Ferreira is a vehement supporter of players standing up for themselves, he is cautious about players making the switch to administration. “In their playing days, most players are too busy with the sport and their focus has to be one dimensional. So, they can’t bother themselves with politics and administrative issues. Even after they have quit, the lack of knowledge deters many from entering sports administration.

“Also, not all players are cut out to be administrators. For example, Sushil Kumar is an excellent wrestler. But he may not make a good administrator. I was a practising lawyer and had corporate experience which made the transition to being a sports administrator easier,” he says. While it remains to be seen whether the ITPA will indeed be successful in achieving its objectives or fizzle out like others before it, it might just serve as a warning sign for administrators that the mindset of players today has changed. The realisation just might be the impetus some of our callous administrators need to ensure that an ‘Avinash’ Bindra never turns up on an Olympic podium in a pair of Bermuda shorts again. And no hockey player ever had to threaten a boycott just to get his financial dues ever again. 

Banner of rebellion
>> In January 2010, national hockey players, including Rajpal Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Sardar Singh, Arjun Halappa, Sandeep Singh and Tushar Khandker, boycott a World Cup preparatory camp to demand a fixed monthly salary for the players and incentives for their performances of the previous year. The players were reportedly paid a pittance of $15 per day for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in May 2009 despite India winning the prestigious tournament after 14 years. The players also allege that they had not received any response from Hockey India to the two letters detailing their grievances sent by them earlier. The crisis is resolved after team sponsor Sahara India offers Hockey India an additional Rs 1 crore to help end the players’ strike and former India player Dhanraj Pillay and then IOA boss Suresh Kalmadi mediate a truce.

>> A week after the crisis in men’s hockey had been resolved, the women’s hockey team takes to the training field at a Commonwealth Games preparatory camp sporting black armbands as they have dues amounting to reportedly Rs three lakh per player. The players also complain they haven’t been paid since April 2008. However, the 40-odd do not resort to a boycott to push their demands.

>> The Indian Badminton Confederation (IBC) is launched in 1997 as a rival to the game's apex body in the country — the Badminton Association of India (BAI) — with Prakash Padukone, the former World No 1 badminton player, at the helm of affairs. Padukone says the breakaway body is launched due to the autocratic nature of the BAI and its officials, including its then president Fazil Ahmed, who Padukone accuses of running the association like a private enterprise.

>> The Indian cycling team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games threaten to return imported cycles purchased for the Games. The cyclists are enraged with the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) order that they sign bonds making them “answerable” for any damage caused to the equipment worth crores.

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