Former Union sports minister Ajay Maken, who is keenly following India’s performance in Rio, is a disappointed man. He says the benefits accrued through Commonwealth Games 2010 have been lost due to wrong policies of the government.
In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Maken said the sports ministers in the NDA government were not focused on the preparations for the Olympics. He also said that India was late in preparing for the Games.
Pitching for more professionalism in the running of sports bodies, he said that politicians had no business being in sports federations. Excerpts:
How disappointed are you with Rio?
I feel particularly bad because we had thought that we will at least double the tally this time, as we had doubled the tally in the London Olympics. We had gone from three to six in London, and we thought we would go from six to 12 this time.
Was there something wrong in our preparations?
We started a bit late. We had started early for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, where we got more than 100 medals. If you compare that with Glasgow in 2014, the number of medals came down. A good performance in Glasgow could have led to a good performance in the Olympics.
Last time, we started our preparations much in advance with [Project] OPEX London 2012 (Operation Excellence London 2012). I took over as sports minister in January 2011, and by end of January [Project] OPEX was launched. There was no dearth of money in [Project] OPEX. I was in personal touch with most of the athletes who were medal hopefuls. That personal touch, I feel, was lacking this time.
Was there lack of involvement of NDA sports ministers?
Sarbananda Sonowal had his focus on Assam. And, when he became chief minister, Jitender Singh got the portfolio as an additional charge. We should have had a full-fledged sports minister, preferably a cabinet rank, who had his full attention on preparing for the Olympics.
The new sports minister, Vijay Goel, found himself in a controversy in Rio.
I would not like to comment on it. But, the one thing that I have pointed out is that I had deliberately taken a decision that the government delegation should predominantly be sportspersons. You will be surprised to know that I had invited Rajyavardhan Rathore to be part of the government delegation, but because of his commitments as a commentator, he pulled out at the last minute.
This time, the delegation was from the Sports Authority of India and the Sports Ministry. Had Olympians gone instead, this complaint would not have been there as they know what places are out of bounds for non-players.
Abhay Chautala, who is not a member of any sports body legally, was also in Rio.
The other thing which I did as a sports minister—and I created a lot of enemies for it—was that I firmly said no to all the sports ministers and also the Goa chief minister who wanted to go to the London Olympics.
Do we need to invest more money in sports?
First, we need to bring in a sports culture. Our children are not physically fit because of the absence of this culture. I wrote to the HRD minister at that time that we need to have marks for physical fitness in our schools. But the proposal was thrown into some dustbin.
The second thing I feel very strongly about is development of sports sciences. I had set up a committee under the sports secretary to design a National Institute of Sports Sciences at the Indira Gandhi Stadium. The committee had submitted its report in 2011. This is needed because sports has become a science.
The third thing is the standard of coaches, physios and sports administrators. We do not have any institute which can impart training to coaches and sports administrators. NIS Patiala’s curriculum for coaches, I found, was three decades old.
The fourth issue is that the corporate sector does not show any interest. People always criticise the government, but it is the government which gives employment to all these athletes. What about the private sector? It should have been the other way round. In other countries, the private sector adopts the athletes at a very young age. Nita Ambani is a member of the IOC. How many players has the Reliance Industries adopted out of India’s Olympics contingent.
The National Sports Development Fund has not been faring too well of late.
This again has to do with the corporate sector and the government. The government matches the fund that it receives. However, I don’t think fund is a major issue. I did a comparative assessment of different countries on how much money they are spending. And I found that we are not spending less money on Olympics training. But suppose, if the total pool of physically fit youngsters in our country is not good, how can you expect good sportspersons to come up?
Athletes like Dipa Karmakar seem to come up against all odds.
She is an exception. With a better attitude in the society, in the country, including the government, she would have been a gold medallist. Coming fourth without anything is a big achievement.
The sports federations are said to be in a mess.
The infighting in the federations is because of lack of professionalism. All these federations are run by retired bureaucrats or politicians. That is why, in my tenure as sports minister, I had said that 25 per cent of the executive body of any sports federation should be sportspersons. People who are running these sports federations have nothing to do with sports.
The government is said to be planning an ordinance that will result in changes in the sports bill.
We have politicians in every party who are opposed to transparency in sports.
The same people opposed my sports bill in the cabinet; [they were] from the Congress and they had the support of the BJP. Narendra Modi was the president of the Gujarat Cricket Association, Arun Jaitley and Anurag Thakur were part of the BCCI. Farooq Abdullah was in Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association, C.P. Joshi [was his counterpart] in Rajasthan and Rajiv Shukla in the Indian Premier League. Look at the sports bodies: Abhay Chautala in boxing, Ajay Chautala in table tennis, Jagdish Tytler was in judo, the Goa chief minister was swimming association president and Vijay Kumar Malhotra was archery association president.
What do all these people have to do with sports? Politicians should confine themselves to politics.
I would go a step ahead of the Lodha panel, which has said ministers and bureaucrats should not be officer-bearers, and say that even the elected representatives, MPs and MLAs, should not be office bearers in sports bodies.
So, we need to cleanse the system of politicians.
What I had defined in my sports bill was that no public servant should be allowed to be an office bearer of any sports federation. By using the word public servant and if you link it to office of profit, it meant even the MLAs and the MPs. Had that bill seen the light of the day, no MLA or MP, leave alone minister, would have been in a sports federation.
It is not easy to reform the system.
When I took the sports bill to the Cabinet, about a dozen of the Cabinet members were themselves in sports bodies. I am happy that at least the prime minister supported me. Had he not supported it, it would not have even come to the Cabinet.
What lessons are we learning from Rio?
India has such a large, young population; it is a shame that we are unable to win a medal in the Olympics. It is high time that we have a former sportsperson as sports minister. Many people are saying Rajyavardhan Rathore can be a good replacement. Even if he is there, we need many more former sportspersons in important positions in the Sports Authority of India.