Sports oligarchs in South Asia

Tuesday, 27 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The role of oligarchs in sports administration, national, regional and international, is not solely a South Asian phenomenon, it is a worldwide cancer. Anyone who has worked in the sports sector in South Asia would have come up against this debilitating factor. It is all pervasive and endemic.

Once at a South Asian Games at Islamabad, the head of Boxing of Pakistan smiled at a visiting counterpart (whose nation, at that time, was a veritable minnow in South Asian boxing) and said, “I think it’s time your country won a bout.” He had a word with an official and wonder of wonders, the next bout was won by a boxer from the visitors’ country, on points, a TKO!


Indian sports management

Oligarchs come into focus due to the recent attempt by India’s Sports Minister Ajay Maken to bring in new legislation, The National Sports Development Bill, which would in his words, “bring in transparency, accountability and good governance” into Indian sports management.

Except for cricket, which is also currently in the doldrums, just look at the rout in England, the Indian limited over World Cup winning team getting the hammering of their lives, Indian sports is in a mess. There are a number of reasons for this, but the major one in India’s case and in the case of South Asia is the mismanagement caused by domination of top posts in the management of sports regulatory bodies by oligarchs.

Absolute power

An oligarchy is described as a form of administration in which absolute power is vested in a few persons who have supreme power in their hands. In South Asia most of these sports oligarchs are politicians or closely connected to politicians. The sports regulator, a government ministry or a department, is also run by a fellow politician, therefore due to rampant political interference regulatory control is virtually nonexistent.

The oligarchs have virtual life tenure, even if there is a term limit provision in the Sports Law; the minister of sports is empowered and does give exemptions to his political colleagues! Sports performance, other than the inherent talent and commitment of players, is generally abysmal.

Even where there seems to be a natural talent, like the Indian and Pakistani talent for field hockey, the rules are changed, to allow play on Astro Turf, which favours the European style of hard hitting rather than the Indo Pak style of dribbling on uneven ground. The South Asian sports oligarchs did not oppose these changes to the international rules of field hockey with the vehemence they should have.

Sangakkara’s stance

Kumar Sangakkara, the current Sri Lankan cricketer and former Captain, winner of the ICC ODI Payer of the Year and ICC People’s Choice Award winner for 2011, unarguably South Asia’s outstanding current sports person, in his historic and groundbreaking ‘Spirit of Cricket’ Colin Cowdrey memorial lecture at Lords described the sorry pass Sri Lanka Cricket had come to despite the high performance due to the blood, sweat and tears of the players and the support staff, caused by the attraction to the filthy lucre by oligarchic claimants to the administrative posts of the cricket controlling body and their ‘goondas’ and consequent mismanagement.

Financial mismanagement and corruption is but one aspect, selection manipulation, underhand deals in related to media and other contracts, etc. are the norm. Sangakkara said: “We have to aspire to a better administration… which ….adopts the values enshrined by the team… integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.”

FIFA scandals

Internationally the histrionics surrounding the re-election of Swiss national Sepp Blater for the umpteenth consecutive year as Head of FIFA and the bribery controversy surrounding the allocation of FIFA World Cup to Qatar and Russia are stuff of history and has been substantially written about in these columns.

There have been inquiries into allegations of corruption, and a Qatari Vice President of FIFA and a regional head for the Americas has been forced to step down. The controversy has not been put to rest and rolls on.

SL Sports Law

In Sri Lanka, readers may recall some time ago an amendment to the Sports Law was drafted to prevent elected members of the legislative branch of government holding office in sports management and regulatory bodies created by the law. The reason was that the political connection to the political head of the Sports Ministry, the Minister, prevented good governance and supervision.

This was shot down by the then Cabinet of Ministers, many of whom were sports oligarchs in every sense of the word themselves. Some ministers who were themselves heads of sports controlling bodies, notwithstanding the obvious conflict of interest, attended the cabinet meeting and opposed the amendment.

One of them later said that the then President wanted his ministers to be involved in sports administration! This begs the obvious question, were the then ministers underemployed supervising the policy of the subject assigned to their ministries? On top of managing the multiple vehicles, pilot cars, backups, bodyguards and a host of hangers-on paid for by the tax payer and managing an electorate?

Indian example

In India the current Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, attempted to bring transparency, accountability and openness to sports management through the amendment to India’s Sports Law.

He proposed among other things to the sports bodies within the purview of the India’s revolutionary Right to Information Act to bring in term limits and impose an age limit. He faced a concerted counter attack from his cabinet colleagues.

The hilarious factor is the obvious conflict of interest – four of the cabinet ministers who opposed the bill are in fact heading sports associations in India! There are others who are office bearers. This is conflict of interest at its pinnacle! No small wonder that India has come to the pass that a Gandhian-like Anna Hazare has to threaten and start a fast unto death to get the Indian Babus and politicians to move off their collective butts and do something for the public good, instead of serving themselves with the spoon they have in their hands, that is carrying on with business as usual. What a pathetic scenario!

The opening salvo against Maken was from the Harvard Law school trained, lawyer, Home minister Chidambaram, a Chettiar from Tamil Nadu , whose legalistic tactics, it is said, got the Union Congress Government into all sorts of complications when they were faced with Anna Hazare’s fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill, before they finally abjectly conceded.

Chidambaram took the legalistic position that ‘sports’ was a state subject under the division of powers in the Indian Constitution and that the union Government could not therefore legislate on the subject. It is mind boggling why this, if it were actually so, had not occurred to the Legal Draftsman and the Attorney General of the Government of India, who would have vetted the bill before it came before Cabinet.

Shukla, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, who is a Vice President of the BCCI, said that the BCCI was a transparent organisation already and that all its matters were in the public domain on the BCCI website. That begs the obvious question, then why worry about the Right to Information law? If everything is in the open, there will be nothing for the public to find out through the RTI! Confusion confounded or purposeful obstruction and blatant dishonesty?

Cabinet secrecy

In frustration the Sports Minister of India Ajay Maken went public on the stand taken by the Indian cabinet ministers, vowing to resubmit a bill which would fix accountability, transparency and good governance to sports administrators. The oligarchic ministers hit back, accusing Maken of knowing nothing about how to behave as a cabinet minister and violating cabinet secrecy.

Cabinet secrecy is a myth; in one south Asian nation we have had a member of the cabinet, who was openly referred to by the head of government of the day as the ‘reporter,’ for his propensity to leak cabinet secrets to a journalist friend. Recently a current minister’s press secretary complained that the minister had been quoted in cabinet of saying something the minister now denied ever saying! Whither, cabinet secrecy?

Before the issue of cabinet secrecy arises, the Indian sports oligarchs should have taken cognisance of the obvious conflict of interest, they who were holding posts as heads and office bearers of sports association, geriatrics having virtual lifetime tenure of mostly misgoverned, mismanaged, underperforming, secretive and non-transparent associations, attending a cabinet meeting in which a bill was being discussed to remedy those wrongs! They should have reclused themselves from the discussion.

Indian CWG

But this is not certainly the stuff the average south Asian politician is made of! A politician who was chairman of the Indian Olympic Association, who chaired the organisation committee for the Delhi Commonwealth Games (CWG) is in Delhi’s Tihar jail, in the company of the ex-minister involved in the 2G spectrum scam, on corruption charges.

Mani Shanker Aiyer, retired member of the Indian Foreign Service, member of India’s Parliament, who was fired from his assignment as Minister of Sports, for opposing the Delhi CWG, declared the CWG to be a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. Aiyer opposed his successor’s bill because it was not based on a policy.

Aiyer had a 35 page National Sports Policy prepared, when he was minister, and placed it before the cabinet. He was fired the day before it was to be taken up! Small wonder that his successor decided not to risk that path! But seriously, does not the law reflect the policy? Aiyer must have had a prophetic sense of the potential for the CWG scams!

SL CWG bid and rugby

Hambantota, Sri Lanka is bidding for the CWG too. The newspaper reports say that an appraisal report gives competitor Australia an edge. The Government has made a humongous estimate of costs and mentioned a huge contribution from donations from non-governmental sources, which the Government will underwrite, if the donations do not materialise. It’s a matter of national prestige for Government and our people.

Some time ago in Sri Lanka a newspaper on the sports page headlined a story that the Sports Minister has appointed a three member committee headed by a former Inspector General of Police to inquire into unconstitutional conduct of officials of the national controlling body for rugby in Sri Lanka.

Over-regulated sector

Sport is probably the most over-regulated sector in Sri Lanka. The regulations made under Sports Law No. 25 of 1973 cover reams of paper. These are mostly obscure and not known. There is a total lack of transparency and accountability in the politico-bureaucratic supervision of sport in Sri Lanka.

Autonomy and accountability for the National Olympic Association and National Sports Associations is simply not there. This applies even to boards appointed by the Minister acting under the powers of the Sports Law; the silent demise of the board which made a financial fiasco of the cricket limited-over World Cup, clearly establishes that!

All this may be tolerable if there is performance. Only performance is reality. All the words, explanations and promises are useless; it is only performance that counts. The body language of the senior players in the national cricket team, such as Kumar and Mahela, at the limited-over World Cup final speaks for itself.

All powerful Minister

The law as it stands gives the Minister all the power, which necessarily means that all the responsibility too must ultimately lie with him and his bureaucracy. But what happens is that responsibility is never taken; the National Sports Authority is always put under the microscope for any debacle, as in the cases of rugby football and cricket, cited above.

The Sports Law permits the Minister to dissolve an elected board and appoint one for a fixed term in certain special and exceptional situations. In some sports the appointed boards are the norm.

The International Cricket Council has given a deadline for the de-politicisation of cricket administration by having democratically elected boards and removing politically appointed boards.

Other international sports federations also throw the rule book at appointed boards with extended tenure.

Chinese example

How does a nation build up its sports performance? There a number of examples from the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Consider the case of China.

China won 100 medals in 25 different sports; 51 Gold, 21 Silver and 28 Bronze. The cost of preparing China’s athletes for the Beijing Olympics was close to US$ 586 million. That would make it more than $ 11 million spent for every gold, or $ 5.86 million for every medal.

China hired the best professional coaches for their athletes, no matter what the cost. There were as many as 38 foreign coaches. Igor Gringko, the Russian rowing coach, who was paid $ 90,000 a year said: “Coaches like me help them to win gold medals, or we are fired.” Just 44 days before the Olympics, a German kayaking coach was in fact fired.

China also spent lavishly on infrastructure; for example, it pumped in $ 291 million into its high altitude training base in Duoba and put in an extra $ 10 million behind the canoe/rowing facility.

The Birds Nest and the Water Cube were sights to wonder at, even over television.

Sri Lanka’s performance was as usual, dismal, despite the pre Olympic hype.

British performance

The most surprising performance was Britain’s. The British team returned home burdened with gold bullion; 19 Gold, 13 Silver and 15 Bronze, coming fourth overall with 47 medals, following the USA placed second and the Russian Federation placed third, defeating heavy hitters such as Australia, South Korea and Japan. Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association attributed the success to money, management and commitment.

“PM John Major deserves a gold medal for providing lottery funding” (almost all British medal winners were on a National Lottery stipend.) “Every pound received was totally directed, money alone does not deliver medals, and it is entirely about how it is spent.”

Lord Moynihan also praised the political commitment: “Across parties, sport is considered a hugely influential force, touching every area of commitment from health and education to international relations. Government has bought into it, opposition has bought into it.”

“British sport has so often been characterised by one year reviews, then an upheaval, then a review, new faces, new systems. You have to have continuity. You can’t expect a company to bring in new management every year and do well. There’s no difference, there has to be a professional, business-like mindset.”

Bindra’s proposals

Our neighbour India had a few successes at the Olympics – one Gold, two Bronze – and the winners spoke out – Abhinav Bindra who clinched the Gold in Men’s 10-metre air rifle event said: “Indian sports needs CEOs with targets. Our culture of honorary functionaries removes all sense of responsibility while imparting authority to control the future of thousands who sweat everyday across the inadequate training facilities which dot India.”

Bindra has put forward a six-point plan for changing the face of Indian sports:

1. Promote sports in schools. Talent is nurtured there.

2. Improve infrastructure. India has only 20 synthetic surfaces for hockey; Australia has 350, Holland 400! Sri Lanka two.

3. Administration needs professionals. The truth is that politicians heading sports bodies have abysmally failed to deliver. They should make way for professionals. Professionalising sports bodies is a precondition to excellence in any sport.

4. Training for coaches. We need to spend on specialists who can train our coaches and physiotherapists.

5. Increase budget allocation. India’s sports budget for 2005-06 was Rs. 292 crore. That was just 0.06% of the national budget. Australia spends roughly four times more with a population 60 times less.

6. Corporate support. There is a need for corporate groups to seriously encourage sports at the grassroots level, not only provide rewards post performance. How about top business houses getting together to adopt an Olympic sport each?

Bindra’s proposals make a lot of sense for Sri Lanka sports. We have virtually the same problems India has. Unfortunately recognition and acceptance of these problems are not forthcoming. Solutions are not even on the horizon.

Integrating the school system

The point Bindra makes about integrating the school system into sports development is probably the most important. Schools are nurseries at which talent is spotted. It must be nurtured, developed and brought into the limelight. Spinner Murali is a classic example. The National Youth Services Council once did this with volleyball, the best school level players were selected and trained under handpicked top class coaches, volleyball coach K.A.K. Wijeyapala and fitness specialist the late Cyril Victor Fernando, both East German trained; their technical skills were developed and given special nutritious diets. Within a year they were the national champion side. These are doable things.

Singapore has a Junior Sports Academy, to which talented school sports persons are attached, while attending their original school, for special training. Political accountability for Sri Lanka’s Beijing debacle is not forthcoming. The action taken against the administrators of rugby football shows nothing has changed.

What China and Britain did to achieve their performance and the Indian winner’s proposals on how India should do it are all before us; whither sports in Sri Lanka?

To his credit, Ajay Maken seems to have taken Bindra’s suggestions seriously and is moving in the correct direction. But India’s sports oligarchs have shot him down. Maybe it’s time for Anna Hazare to step in once again? His medicine seems to work as is seen with the Lokpal Bill on corruption. In our case, let’s hope the Hambantota CWG shakes things up.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Recent columns