Who is the world’s longest serving official in a sports body?
This is not a trick question but a reality check. If you have Vijay Kumar Malhotra as the answer, you are most likely correct. Banana republics abound and there might be some sports administrator somewhere who has spent more time in office, but Malhotra’s three-decade-plus tenure as president of the Archery Federation of India will take some beating.
Malhotra is not the only one in India to have stayed long enough in a sports federation to make it appear like his personal fiefdom. Suresh Kalmadi has been Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president for 14 years, Jagdish Tytler has headed the Judo Federation of India for around 20 years, V.K. Verma’s footprint on the Badminton Association of India (BAI) spans 12 years, Abhay Singh Chautala has dealt a lethal upper-cut to all claimants as the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation chief for nine years.
Enough said. There are at least a dozen names that can be included in this list but these are already in the public domain, and a certain amount of unrest in the public has become demonstrable. The fact that several (if not most) of these officials happen to be politicians has only aggravated the issue. There is nothing to suggest that an ordinary office-bearer is any better or worse, but politicians have earned so much more renown as scamsters and carpetbaggers that there is little scope of them getting the benefit of doubt.
It would be interesting to understand why politicians are so easily seduced by sports. Most federations or associations mentioned are not exactly cash rich, so control over a large corpus of money as, say, in cricket, cannot be the reason. The impulse for power, as Bertrand Russell has written, could be it.
It still begs the question then why the performance of these office-bearers should be so dismal—unless power becomes an end in itself. The country’s track record in sports is pathetic, and necessarily raises the question of whether these long-standing office-bearers should be held accountable.
Staying power: The BJP leader Vijay Kumar Malhotra. Photo: PTI
The sports ministry’s latest order putting a cap on the tenure of sports officials must be seen in this context to make any sense, but even so it is contentious. Does a limited term guarantee performance? What about other factors that go into the making of a “sporting” country—namely, government and private support, and in a wider scope, that of the public? Does not continuity help, rather than having an official who doesn’t see his/her programme through to completion?
There is also the other—and not insignificant matter—of organizational protocol and legality. The world football authority, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), has an open-ended tenure for the president. It prides itself on its democratic set-up wherein presidents are voted into power every four years, and a deserving (according to member countries) candidate can be re-elected any number of times. A move to limit the tenure of the Fifa president was recently shot down by an overwhelming majority.
Indeed, sports federation heads from India are likely to hurl the example of Fifa and the Olympic Charter at the sports ministry as they gear up for battle to protect their turf. Clause 28.6 of this Charter becomes pertinent in the dispute. It says: “The NOCs (National Olympic Committees) must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures, including but not limited to, political, legal, religious or economic pressure which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter.”
As I write this on Tuesday, Messrs Kalmadi and Co. are sharpening their sabres for a battle rather than just a rattle. When crisis strikes, politicians from all parties and ideologies find common ground. It’s no different this time if the joint press conference on Monday addressed by Kalmadi, Tytler (both Congress), Malhotra (BJP) and others is any indication.
This is a piquant time for the issue to have cropped up, with the Commonwealth Games round the corner. Sports federation heads have questioned the timing of the order because of this. This could be a highly nuanced ploy by the sports ministry in the belief that no sports federation head would risk government wrath so close to the Commonwealth Games. It must also be said that the sports ministry has not covered itself in glory in the past, and there are several skeletons in the cupboard which will become arsenal for the federation heads.
If you suspect that this is becoming a political game within a game, you may be right. It is known that sports minister M.S. Gill is not favourably disposed towards Kalmadi. It is a different matter that Kalmadi has several foes within the IOA itself. For now, sports federation heads have closed ranks to take on the ministry. Their salvo that Gill, himself over 70, should retire first before imposing this age limit on others shows that the battle could be bitter. Whether this will be the catharsis, which will lead Indian sport out of the morass of despondency into high achievement, is the moot question.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com