With Asiad, Olympics ahead, athletes and federations need to work as a team

A few weeks before the start of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Indian high jumper Tejaswin Shankar was running from pillar to post, fighting his non-selection in the track and field squad for Birmingham.

Tejaswin was the only Indian athlete to clear the qualification standard for Birmingham while participating in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States. However, he was selected by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) because he did not participate in the National Inter-state Athletics Meet that the national federation has picked as selection trials for the Commonwealth Games.

Tejaswin eventually took the matter to the Delhi High Court, and got an order for his inclusion but was on tenterhooks till five days before his competition when the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Birmingham 2022 Organising Committee eventually approved his inclusion in the Indian contingent.

Just like Tejaswin Shankar, table tennis player Diya Chitale too had to take recorse to the Delhi High Court to be included in the squad after she was ignored initially.

Tejaswin won the bronze medal with a personal best effort and guess who were conspicuous by their absence during his interactions with the media — the AFI officials. The AFI officials were present when other Indian track and field medal winners were meeting the media.

This is not an isolated case, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is notorious for doing such things and proven stars like woman high jumper Bobby Aloysius, and middle distance runner PU Chitra have faced the brunt of its wrath ahead of mega-events.

Indian sports history is replete with such instances where sportspersons have to take recourse to legal cases to get selected in the teams. Besides athletes, table tennis and badminton players, weightlifters and wrestlers had to fight legal battles to settle selection matters.

“They are capable of making up any reason to drop you from the squad if they decide to. It could be missing the trials, not achieving selection criteria in XYZ event but doing it in ABC, not participating in national camp or anything. The first step is to not send the name in the long list, and then delay getting it changed even when forced through court orders. They can do anything,” said an athlete on condition of anonymity fearing the wrath of the administrators.

Besides, selection issues, athletes and officials of their respective federations have clashed over coaches, and non-availability of physios and doctors of their choice.

Tokyo Olympic Games bronze medallist wrestler Bajrang Punia faced had earlier this year claimed that the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) had denied him the physiotherapist of his choice, which was hampering his recovery from an injury.

STar table tennis player Manika Batra had problems with the federation-appointed coach for teams events and did not avail the help of chief national coach Soumyadeep Roy alleging lack of confidence in the coach as he asked her to tank a match. At Birmingham, for the crucial match against Malaysia, men’s team coach S Raman was sitting courtside instead Anindita Chakraborty, the designated women’s team coach.

Star boxer Lovlina Borghoain too raised a stink after her personal coach Sandhya Gurung did not get the accreditation necessary to be with her in the Athletes Village. With the restrictions on the number of support staff for each sport and the entire contingent, it is not possible for the national federation and the IOA to get accreditation for all doctors, physio, and other support staff. In the case of Lovlina, the chief national coach decided to move out of the village to get her room while the accreditation of a doctor was changed to get her the proper accreditation.

There have been numerous such cases in India.

The reason for the tussle is the federation’s attempts to control the future of the athlete and the sportspersons’ attempts to break free.

The sportspersons too have to accept that it is not possible for their coaches to get the services of their exclusive coaches in a team atmosphere. They have to make do with whoever is available. It is not that they will forget all that they had leant in months and years if they don’t get their coach or physio for the last tow events fore their competition.

For the Paris 2024 Olympics, the federations will have to work in coordination with TOPS and mission olympic clell to work out the best possible ways to prepare out athletes for Paris 2024.

Only cooperation and coordination between athletes and federation will help them both succeed. Otherwise, we may have a disaster on our cards.

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