The Indian athlete and the sport itself are at the bottom of the list of priorities

After news that Thyagraj Stadium had been emptied of athletes, only to let Delhi’s chief secretary (Revenue) Sanjeev Khirwar and his Great Dane roam the venue, the reaction came quickly.

The Delhi government said all stadiums would be open for athletes until 10pm. The Home Office relocated Khirwar to Ladakh and his wife Rinku Dugga to Arunachal Pradesh. The pair belong to the squad of IAS’ AGMUT (Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territories). Instead of setting an example, the quick transfers take the affected person out of the media’s field of vision. If I were a citizen of Arunachal or Ladakh, I would be deeply offended.

I’ve sent messages through Indian sport to look for similar eligibility files and the replies included not just Babus but every trace of big wig: federation officials, politicians, especially those who fit both criteria. A decade ago, this particular administrative trifecta — babus, netas, federation officials — piled into megagame quotas. They often occupied places in the Games Village in as large a number as athletes and employees. The situation has improved significantly, but Paralympic sport now embraces the new gravy train. India’s contingent for the 2022 Winter Olympics was four: one competitor, three non-competitors.

Journalist Abhijeet Kulkarni recalls a national TT tournament in Manesar when a match between Achanta Sharath Kamal and Soumyadeep Roy, both top players, was abandoned after three games. A cultural show had to be organized for the late main guest.

In 2017, the New Indian Express reported that the athletics coach and his trainees were evicted from the Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore. One of the athletes had asked a walker to leave the training trail, the walker was the wife of an IPS officer. The coach was asked to leave Kanteerava for allegedly not being qualified to coach – some of his athletes were training for CWG qualifications. The 2017 Nagpur National Final between PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal was delayed because the event’s closing ceremony and speeches were held before the event ended.

The interruption of Indian athletes in preparation, warm-up or competition is commonplace in Olympic sports. Because our athletes are not the focus of our sports landscape. They are mostly placed on the side, slightly behind or, in the worst case, at the feet of those controlling their sport. In his memoirs, Abhinav Bindra recalls that Suresh Kalmadi referred to him as Avinash shortly after he won Olympic gold. (India’s first singles gold before Neerav Chabria won the second in Tokyo.)

In the last decade there have been tremendous advances in meeting the needs of top Indian athletes. So much so that we know Medalists/Superstars use their status to get the most out of the government’s resource cake. Reverse permission if you wish. Like the well-connected young gunman who would reach the airport with his gun and call the association officials to get his paperwork/licensing done as soon as possible.

But the case of the roving dog reminds us that outside the elite bubble, outside the ground, the Indian athlete and the sport itself – playing, training, competing – are at the bottom of the list of priorities. Stadiums owned by local governments are used as venues for weddings, election rallies, rock concerts and as parking lots. The buildings are often better protected than the sporting interests they were built for, as we saw in Thyagraj. Their access becomes an instrument of power. As with the Ambedkar Stadium, whose iconic status as the home of Delhi football remains intentionally eroded. Football Delhi makes more use of Nehru Stadium than Ambedkar as the MCD’s Rs 7500 daily cost does not make financial sense in its annual fixture calendar of around 2000 games.

Bangalore, where I live, has a soccer field that is centrally located but very poorly maintained. From 2014 to 2015, JSW’s Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) chose to host their games at Kanteerva. It has put them in conflict with the Karnataka Athletics Association. The stature of Bangalore’s 50-year-old soccer stadium has stagnated. Rather than being a thriving football headquarters in Bangalore and Karnataka, its games and events are held on an irregular basis. The latest major piece of news from the ground concerned a gang war killing in the umpire’s room ahead of a Division A women’s league game in September 2021.

It doesn’t matter if Khirwar was directly responsible for clearing the athletes out of Thyagraj earlier than usual or not. Near the stadium is the several-hectare Thyagraj Park, which is announced to close at 10:00 p.m. on Friday. But Khirwar chose the stadium because he could, he possessed the power of entry after the athletes were locked out. This long lens photo in the Indian Express became a stinging symbol: regardless of our achievements on the world stage, regardless of Khelo India, when the demands of even small masters need to be served, it is very easy to neglect the sport in our country.

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