The protest by Indian wrestlers against the wrestling federation alleging mismanagement of the sport and sexual exploitation of athletes has brought to public attention the glaring systemic inadequacies of the sports ecosystem in the country.

On January 18, India’s leading wrestlers began a protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar demanding action against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, following allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. On January 21, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur said Singh had been asked to step down until a high-level committee completes an investigation into the allegations.

Sexual exploitation in sports is a by-product of the skewed power dynamic between athletes and federations. This flawed structure is the result of decades of misguided, and sometimes malicious, policies formulated for Indian sports, as well as the centralisation of control in the hands of the state.

Change will only come in Indian sport from challenging these entrenched power structures and empowering athletes to speak up against exploitation.

Minimum consensus, power nexus

Sports is one of the few activities that unifies Indians. There is a common minimum consensus among all arms of the state that sports is to remain a closely guarded domain that is under their control. This reflects in the failed attempts at a sports law over the years that garnered cross-party unity in throttling the bills, such as the National Sports Development Bill, 2011, or the draft National Sports Development Bill, 2013.

For instance, in 2011, leaders of the Congress-led ruling United Progressive Alliance opposed the National Sports (Development) Bill because they stood to lose their influence with the national sports federation. The cabinet, thus, vetoed a bill by its own member. A few years later, the Draft National Code for Good Governance in Sports, 2017, was scrapped after disagreements over provisions.

Similarly, every new reform policy that is proposed to enhance the smooth functioning of sports bodies actually comes at the expense of the transparency and accountability of national sports federations.

In Indian sports, power is centralised in a committee or representative of the state – a judge, bureaucrat or politician. Procedural compliance and sports codes change willy-nilly based on the regime in power. Any kind of reform will be futile unless this power nexus with the state is exploded.

Credit: via Pixabay.

The policy of appointing chief executive officers to run national sports federations is flawed as the system of nominations and shortlisting of candidates extends the state’s de facto control. Appointments are politicised and highly subjective. An independent form of recruitment that tests a candidate’s lived and learned experience will be a step in the right direction.

Although there has been a rise of athlete administrators, they remain figureheads with little power without the political backing of the ruling regime. For sports bodies to effectively exercise power, they must be divorced from the state.

Creating a national sports ombudsman, with representatives drawn from civil society and sports, would be a possible alternative to the existing institutional framework.

The formulation of sports policy should involve a mix of experts – as former athletes, policy analysts, academics and human rights or equality opportunity activists – with real say in the process, which will ensure effectiveness, equal opportunity and welfare.

While politicians provide policy direction, it is bureaucrats who write sports codes and policies. Given the power these state actors hold, policy formulation by experts will not be effective unless their overreach is checked. Thus, bureaucrats, judges and other state actors should have clearly defined roles and stick to them.

Policy tweaks

Indian cricket continues to churn out talent and winners not because all the cricketing talent in the world is born in India but because cricket, right from the grassroots level to the top, is an attractive career.

A Ranji Trophy cricketer has financial security, leaving them free to work on perfecting their art, raising the overall level of competition in the country. This incentive is missing in other sports.

The current thrust of India’s strategy for the Olympics is to identify potential talent and give them the best training and facilities to ensure their success. While well-intentioned, a considerable amount of money is being spent on creating the right infrastructure and facilities for athletes.

An athlete during the Tokyo Paralympic Games in September 2021. Credit: Reuters.

A good representation of this approach is the Mission Olympic Cell, which runs the Target Olympic Podium Scheme of the Sports Authority of India. It is based on the flawed premise that India needs to find or produce its own Lionel Messi.

Given India’s population, it is a statistical inevitability that people with the once-in-a-generation talent of Lionel Messi or sprinter Usain Bolt are already being born in the country. The problem is that they are not incentivised to keep playing the sport.

To leverage India’s edge over other nations with its population and demographic dividend, sports policies have to be tailored to reduce dropouts. This is only possible if an enabling environment that nurtures athletes is created, complete with avenues for them to find fruitful post-career employment, mid-career training, education and more.

For example, the Short Service Commission model for the armed forces, in which officers serve for a limited period that enables them to change careers after service, could be adapted for the sports ecosystem.

Data vacuum

Research in sports as a field of study is woefully underdeveloped in India. The data on Indian sports is inadequate and a centralised collection system is needed urgently.

Superficial metrics such as financial allocations and output in terms of medals are measured. The focus of data collection needs to move past this to delve into a SWOT analysis of the entire ecosystem to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Annual data on the number of dropouts from each kind of sport and examining why should be priority. Data on the age, gender and sport category of those dropping out will give a comprehensive picture of the flaws in India’s sports policy.

Such data should widely be made available to independent think tanks and scholars for analysis that will help enhance the academic rigour of sports. Academic programmes in newly established sports universities in India are limited to sports science. The acceptance of sports policy as an emerging and exciting field of research can benefit India across sectors.

Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Anurag Thakur with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Union Minister of State for Sports Nisith Pramanik and state sports minister Yashodhara Raje Scindia at the opening ceremony of the Khelo India Youth Games at TT Nagar Stadium in Bhopal on January 30. Credit: PTI.

Amnesty scheme

Finally, empowering athletes to speak up whenever they are aware of exploitation is key to the success of the sports ecosystem and ensuring that national sports federations are held accountable.

The current system is designed to punish athletes for speaking up. They fear rigged selection trials, the imposition of legal technicalities and strong-arming by office bearers if they speak up.

A way around this is to offer whistle-blowing athletes short-term amnesty from administrative backlash from their federations. If the fear of never playing again in significant competitions is taken away, most athletes will be forthcoming in their experience within the system.

Since sports is a field where performances are easily compared and reduced to numbers that are hard to argue against, ensuring that whistle-blowers are guaranteed a trial and a fair shot at maintaining their careers after they speak up is not a difficult proposition.

An amnesty scheme giving an athlete a transparent yet separate selection trial where they have the opportunity to match the eligibility markers set up for national qualifications will bring further accountability and scrutiny into the politics of sports selections in India.

There is no comprehensive set of reforms that can address all the problems that plague Indian sports, but a major cause has been the historical lack of scrutiny.

Although things are changing, the culture created by vested interests will continue to influence all policies unless it is tackled head-on. All reform must first address this aspect.

Anupriya, a former cricketer who represented Jharkhand and Delhi University, is a policy analyst working at the intersection of sports and social policy.