India's latest sports icon Abhinav Bindra told the country quite bluntly that it had no sporting ethos worth the name and that politicians, ministers, bureaucrats and others of the ilk should not be controlling sports bodies.
These words, coming from a champion sound punchy. But such sound bites have sparked animated debates every time our athletes have failed in international arenas like the Olympic or Asian Games. The usual refrain is: What do they know about sport? Throw them out.
The hockey administration faced severe criticism when India failed to win a medal in the 2006 Doha Asian Games and again after the failure in the Santiago qualifier. There was even a protest march on the streets of the capital by former greats of the game after the Doha disaster.
But since the criticism is now coming from India's one and only individual athlete to win an Olympic gold medal so far, people are taking note. He has admonished the system, or lack of it, after the country's best ever Olympic venture -- two boxing bronze medals besides Bindra's gold.
Three medals should hardly be satisfying for a nation with over a billion people to choose its athletes from. Bindra thinks India has the talent to raise itself to a more respectable position in the Olympic medal standings. It could win 30-40 medals in times to come if sports administration goes professional, or well paid CEOs, as they are called these days, are involved with our sports bodies, for these men will be more accountable, he argues with conviction. He may well be right. At Beijing, we had a handful of quarter-finalists who did credit to themselves and their country even if they did not exactly come back with medals dangling on their chests.
You can't help but agree with the champion air rifle shooter in scholarly looking glasses when he reminds his fellow countrymen that Olympic sports come low down in the country's list of priorities. The young man from Chandigarh has a mind of his own. For the number of medals to get into double digits there has to be a consistent and widespread commitment to Olympic disciplines.
Olympic medals don't come cheap. The raising of a single Olympic gold medalist would work out into tens of millions of rupees a year by conservative estimates, not forgetting decades of sweat and toil. Ask the Chinese. Ask Bindra himself. He cries for infrastructure and massive investments, for coaches with the right kind of knowledge. His own sport of shooting lacks modern ranges, the one at Tughlaqabad in New Delhi being in a poor state of repair. Where, also, are the facilities like proper boxing rings and wrestling mats, all weather swimming pools and gymnasiums, athletic tracks and cycling velodromes, for youths to train and compete in their thousands, or even a sufficient number of playing grounds? Those who have the talent find affording the equipment beyond their slender means.
However, you can't paint everyone with the same brush when Bindra questions the role of some people who muscle their way into positions of authority in sports federations. Politicians and other influential persons capture power in sports federations to increase their sphere of influence. It was a shooter who won for India its first ever individual gold medal, but the shooting federation is headed by one who has no achievements in the sport to his credit. Ditto for the boxing and the wrestling federations. Whosoever may head the sports bodies, in the end it is left to the sportsmen to perform, after all.
Not every champion performer is qualified to lead a sports body, though Abhinav Bindra himself may be a suitable candidate to be the helm of the shooting body many years from now when he retires from competitive shooting. He may even deserve some higher, international, role in the future, just as you have Seb Coe, the distinguished former British 800 metres world record holder, heading the 2012 London Olympic Games organising committee. You may have a Platini forging his way up in the French soccer administration or a Beckenbauer organizing the World Cup for Germany..But imagine Diego Maradona, the world's best footballer of the 20th century, taking over control of the international football federation (FIFA).
But if, after the gold medal euphoria wears off, Bindra's bluntly stated truths can help shake up our slow-moving sports bureaucracy and get it to kick its red tape approach, inject more dynamism into the working of the sports ministry, bring more professionalism into the management of sports and involve corporate houses in a bigger way in encouraging Olympic sports disciplines, they would have done a world of good to Indian sport.
(K. Datta is a veteran sports journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)