The Indian Olympic Association president Narinder Batra took the moral high ground while dropping the men’s and women’s football teams from the Asian Games contingent because of non-performance.

The former chief of Hockey India had then said:

 “You have to be at a certain level now. You cannot go there to finish as also rans. You need to be visible. You have to earn your place in the contingent. Those days when these things were overlooked are gone.”   

Batra’s comments were refreshing, with the IOA projecting that it was finally serious about performance of its contingent in such multi-discipline events rather than just participating in big numbers.

But cracks in that theory came to the fore when it was clear that the women’s handball team was cleared despite finishing eighth in the last edition of the Asian Games in Incheon. Although the IOA claimed that the team was ranked fifth in Asia, the rankings did not reflect on the Asian Handball Federation website and the Indian team has been mostly inactive in the last 12 months.

With pressure increasing over IOA to justify its stand against the All India Football Federation, the apex body went on to review of its own selection process and dropped triathlon, and reduced the sando contingent to just one, stating that the national federations had misled them with wrong information about their performance in the past.

Batra once again took the moral high ground while annoucing these changes but did not answer the basic question – who scrutinised the entries, and the performance of the federations and individual sportspersons before the contingent was finalised and entries sent on June 30?

In a soup

He is now in a soup after the men’s handball team found a place in the Asian Games draw despite the IOA not clearing the side for participation. Efforts are now on to “adjust” the 16-member team into the contingent by dropping athletes from other sports, as the Handball Federation of India could now face action if the team doesn’t participate.

The Times of India suggested that the Asian Handball Federation gave India the entry after five teams pulled out of the competition. “The Indian men’s team was ranked 12th in the Asian Championships but as per AHF competition regulations if any team which will not participate in a championship (Asian Games) which they have played to qualify, then the next ranked team automatically take their place and qualify,” the paper quoted a letter from AHF Secretary General Muhammad Shafiq to the Indian federation.

The Asian Handball Federation website has no mention whatsoever about what the qualification criteria is for the Asian Games, although it has an exhaustive list of qualifying events that one needs to participate for the World Championship, Youth Olympics, Olympics.

Even the handball handbook for the Asian Games has no qualifying criteria, raising questions on what prompted the Asian Federation to send such a letter.

More importantly, irrespective of whether a team qualifies for the Games or not, the Olympic Council of Asia’s Constitution and Rules clearly state that the entries for the Asian Games/Asian Indoor Games can only come through the National Olympic Council, which means the Asian Handball Federation cannot put India’s name in the draw unless it was endorsed by the IOA.

The exact provisions in the OCA Constitution and Rules
The exact provisions in the OCA Constitution and Rules

According to a senior IOA member, Batra was always under pressure to clear both the handball teams after the national Olympic body’s treasurer Aruneshwar Pandey, who is also the secretary of Handball Association of India, threatened to resign and revolt against the president.

If the entry of the men’s handball team was confirmed without the knowledge of the IOA president, then one will even have to question whether he is really in charge of the decision-making process.

Sources say the IOA has also decided to increase the members of the fencing squad from the four announced to 12, while trying to cut down athletes from Pencak Silat, which won India six medals at the 2016 Asian Beach Games, and few other disciplines as they have clearance for 524 athletes. It is not a mere coincidence that IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta is the president of that federation.

More backfiring

IOA’s attempt to play selector in the Sailing and Equesterian teams has also backfired. Batra had called the Equestrian Federation of India officials for a meeting following a complaint from Shruti Vora, who had participated in Incheon, and then added three more names to the squad. However, Vora was still left out after the federation put forth its point of view.

In the sailing case, the IOA unilaterely announced that it was replacing two players and would wait for the Delhi High Court decision before sending those entries to the OCA.

“We have named Varsha Gautham and Shweta Shervegar in place of Ekta Yadav and Shaila Charles. Varsha and Shweta are silver medallists in the Asian Championships, while Ekta and Saila are bronze medallists,” Batra had said then.

However, the High Court could not find any discrepencies in the selection process and the Yatching Association of India (YAI) decided to stick to its stand that selecting athletes was their prerogative.

As things stand now, YAI has decided to hold another selection trial for the 49er FX team in Jakarta and would open it up for other competitors. More importantly, IOA may have to end up footing the bill of the trials if the Delhi High Court accepts YAI’s demand.

All these developments haven’t gone down well with the IOA member associations who feel that the apex body’s failure to implement the selection standards uniformly, along with giving leeway to the federations controlled by the a few office bearers.

With the AIFF officials anyway hinting that the decision to not send the football teams was more about ego of certain IOA officials than a criteria-based call, it seems the IOA’s grandstanding and the subsequent fallouts have only ended up shooting themselves in the foot.