All is not well in Indian badminton. Doubles exponent Jwala Gutta has taken on the authorities alleging step-motherly treatment towards her and her partner Ashwini Ponnappa as they have not been included in the elite group with medal prospects.
For Jwala, the authorities mean Pullela Gopichand and the animus between them goes back to almost a decade. It all started with the government naming Gopichand as national coach and then picking his sprawling academy in Hyderabad as the venue for national camps.
She and her former husband Chetan Anand refused to train at Gopichand’s academy and both paid a heavy price missing out on international competition. Chetan even missed out on Beijing Olympics qualification as his ranking went out of the radar.
The question that begs an answer is should Gopi take the blame for a decision taken by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) and the sports ministry? The academy may have also benefited by the arrangement, but at the same time it has also produced quite a few champion players, whether one of them, World No.1 Saina Nehwal, today acknowledges the contribution of her estranged coach for making her a top international player. The day she was crowned World No.1 she did not remember him.
Another question is whether players can make outlandish allegations and get away just because a receptive and proactive media is willing to project their issues. Unfortunately, Indian badminton is vertically split, those who swear by Gopichand and those who swear at him.
The latest controversy involving Jwala was her outburst over the omission of the doubles teams from the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) Scheme. The normally acerbic Jwala upped the ante after she won the Canada Open Grand Prix doubles title with Ashwini last month.
It must be conceded that Jwala and Ashwini are easily India’s best doubles combination and they deserve to be treated with some respect. Never mind Jwala will be 33 at the time of the Rio Olympic Games, yet she has done enough to merit one last shot at the Games looking at her achievements over the years. Even if one doesn’t count their Commonwealth exploits, Jwala and Ashwini have a World bronze among other credits.
For some strange reason, BAI is unwilling to discipline the doubles players for their caustic criticism of Gopichand, leaving him and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) take them on. Unfairly, Jwala’s sister also jumped into the situation writing an open letter to SAI director-general Injeti Srinivas, who rightly refused to react to a letter full of impish sarcasm.
Srinivas, however, came out in defence of Gopichand as well as SAI and refuted Jwala’s charge of discrimination against her, obliquely expressing his unhappiness over the media giving all attention to people who make the maximum noise instead of telling the players to get on with the game.
SAI now says that Jwala and Ashwini have been given all the facilities the so-called TOP players are getting and are allowed to participate in any tournament they want to participate as these decisions are taken in consultation with the national coach and BAI. Buttressing the argument, it says the two players can’t complain of lack of support to their preparation as all the tournaments they wanted to play have been cleared.
Srinivas says the very fact that the doubles camp is being held in Bangalore under an Indonesian coach and not at Gopichand’s academy shows how seriously the event is being taken.
He also refuted Jwala’s criticism that the ministry and SAI are not getting the right advice, inferring that it was at Gopichand’s behest the doubles team has been kept out of TOP. He said the national coach never spoke against the two players and it is unfair to blame him for everything.
After Srinivas spoke up, Gopichand also tried to clear the air. Expressing a feeling of hurt, he said the players have been attacking him in generalities without mentioning specifics for him to reply.
Jwala has gone a little too far by questioning the policy of selecting four men players and SAI answered it saying as it wanted a group of players to practice together it picked four instead of the two qualification berths.
For her part, Jwala has also stepped on too many corns by dabbling in BAI politics and that surely was not her domain as a player. Instead of going to media straightaway, she should have taken it up with BAI and SAI. Now that her wish is granted, she and Ashwini should concentrate on their game instead of listing what they rightly or wrongly think are Gopichand’s faults.
There are those who see Gopichand’s involvement in various schemes as adviser as conflict of interest since his word will help a youngster with a scholarship and if the boy or the girl happens to be from his academy then there is subjective question mark. He should also demarcate areas where he should not step on.
The authorities should have also addressed the delicate issue with sympathy when two top players are involved. They could have taken the two players into confidence what was their idea of TOP and how the others can also be accommodated.
Sometimes authority and ego can spoil a case and that’s exactly what has happened in this episode raising doubts whether it is truly a racquet sport or a racket of the sport!
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)