This is the Olympics season, and as our thoughts, ambitions and expectations from our athletes swell to Olympian proportions, the sight of Vijay Goel on television, speaking in cryptic clues, sparked a small-minded, petty kind of pretty obvious question.
With due respect to the sporting achievements and decades-old athletic fandom of the incumbent minister of youth affairs and sports (Myas), should not Rajyavardhan Rathore, member of Parliament (Jaipur Rural), be the man in charge?
Rathore, now the minister of state for information and broadcasting, turns up in his very formal bandhgalas and says serious things in national interest. But for us sports journalists, he will always be the guy called “Chilly”. In any case, that is a way cooler nickname than Mantriji.
Let’s quickly clarify one thing right here. The idea of Chilly as Myas-in-charge is not, repeat not, his wish that is being planted, as is often attempted, through a pliant journalist. When the previous sports minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, switched over to his obviously bigger job, I sent a WhatsApp message to a number that used to be Rathore’s, saying he should be the new sports minister. And, FYI party bosses, there was no reply (no offence taken, Chilly, that may not even be your number any more. And even if it is, big deal).
Now, like Sonowal’s extension to higher power, Rathore may certainly want to occupy a way loftier office. He may want to be in charge of defence, home, Rajasthan, external affairs, hell, even become prime minister, and he is fully entitled to dream. But my argument about the sports ministry still holds as of today.
Goel sahab, 62, has told us he has played basketball and kho-kho and still plays tennis, and offered an excellent piece of advice to the medal-predictors: “Who can predict the number of medals, you tell me? We should just wish them well. And our job is not only to win medals, but also to take sports to every doorstep.” Reads perfect. But strictly for the year 2000 or earlier.
Rathore would make for an ideal sports minister in these times because he has athletic credentials unmatched by anyone else in the country, is in politics and happens to have won a general election. Those credentials are not limited to his medal at the Athens Olympics, the first individual Olympic silver by an Indian. It was his trek towards that medal that gives Rathore the first-hand field experience no other sports minister has ever had—of what it means to be an Olympic athlete in India.
It is an existence that stretches way beyond the blood-sweat-tears-and-triumph drama. Our individual athletes deal with two key off-field components—the first, ensuring that you have not annoyed anyone in your sport’s national ruling body so that the second, funding for training, expert help and quality competition whenever and wherever required, is cleared without too much kowtowing and begging. Non-profits like the Olympic Gold Quest, the now defunct Mittal Champions Trust, GoSports, JSW Sports and others are today ready to do that unsavoury heavy lifting. But in the years Rathore took to the sport of shooting, they did not exist. He was to walk alone.
A serving army man with the 9 Grenadiers, Rathore went about his Olympic campaign like a military mission. He took leave from the army, applied to the sports ministry for National Sports Development Fund payouts, filled in his own forms, provided all the documentation and received Rs.68 lakh as public money—to plan his competition calendar, pay for expert coaching, buy his tickets, apply for visas and be on his way. Two years later, he won India’s first silver and said he dedicated it to the taxpayers of India. See? That’s how to go about winning an Olympic medal.
Abhinav Bindra was to say of that Athens medal: “Rathore changed me. His silver ensured that gold became my possibility.”
In the years since, Rathore has been through the fame factory, taken the National Rifle Association of India to court over his right to contest their elections and faced pre-Athens doping allegations around the time of the court case. He is a middle-class, educated, English-speaking army officer. That is many rungs up the ladder of privilege. In his darkest moments of despair and frustration, he may have wondered how others less empowered survive the slow strangulation of Indian sport’s toxic politics and red tape and how many fall away. There is no one in the current government who has been through such a revealing range of an Indian Olympic athlete’s life and knows its structures and systems, good, bad and evil, all through.
In September 2013, Rathore was to leave the army and join the Bharatiya Janata Party, saying: “I feel that sportsmen should have a bigger say in the administration. No sports body can tolerate sportspersons getting united and stronger. We will have to find means and modes of getting sportsmen into the administration of sports bodies.”
As a political move, Rathore for Myas gives the ruling party the chance to seize the title of “India’s best sports minister ever”, one which currently belongs to Ajay Maken from the Other Side. Until Maken’s brief tenure—May 2011 to October 2012—the Myas job was treated as a minor-fry appointment for the minister and a punishment posting for bureaucrats.
Maken was to energize the ministry by turning the screws on the national sports federations (NSFs) and, through a document called the National Sports Developmental Bill, attempt to put a halt to the NSF gravy train. In 2011, some of the country’s leading athletes turned up on stage in support of the Bill—Prakash Padukone, Pankaj Advani, Bhaichung Bhutia, Ashwini Nachappa and, in the photographs along with them, Rathore.
The Bill was pushed as far as it could go—it currently lies filed somewhere under a category called Go Away—but a mellow version of the same is in operation and can still make the gravy-trainers sweat. Rahul Mehra, who describes himself as a “sports activist”, has taken every single NSF as well as the Board of Control for Cricket in India to court for bad governance, worked on the draft of the Bill and is currently senior standing counsel for Delhi, says India’s ideal sports minister needs to “be passionate about sports, have a heart that has empathy for the key stakeholders, your core constituency, the athletes, and zero tolerance for corruption and any lackadaisical and status-quoist approach in sport”.
Rathore’s choice as the sports minister, he says, is a “no-brainer”. If he didn’t have the job himself, even Goelji would agree.
Unless, and this is just whimsy, no one in political power wants the public money passed on to sports federations to be spent smartly on sport, or for NSF officials to be made to serve athletes rather than the other way around. Is this why no one in political power ever wants that sports Bill to be passed? Or Rathore, with his intimate working knowledge of the entire ecosystem of Indian sport, put in charge of the sport ministry?
What an absurd idea.Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Espn.in.