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PLAYERS FIRST

Fans may wave national flags, but professional sport today is all about individual dreams and performances. The era when the country came first for the player is long over. And it is good for the player and also for the game that this is so. The controversy over the selection of the Indian doubles tennis team for the London Olympics misses this simple truth. It is not for the All India Tennis Association, and much less for the sports ministry, to decide which player should team up with whom. The intervention of a government department or an association is not just bad policy. It is also almost certainly a recipe for a bad performance. There have been occasions when a football team or an individual player took the field at the behest of a government or its leaders. The result in most such cases has been a poor show by the team or the individual player. A player can hardly give his best when the game is only a patriotic call. It was wrong on the part of the sports ministry or the AITA to assume that they know best as to who Leander Paes should have as a doubles mate. It may not do the game much good if the IATA takes disciplinary action against Mahesh Bhupathi or Rohan Bopanna for refusing to toe the official line. A decision forced on a player is particularly bad for a doubles team which requires the mates to feel comfortable with each other.

Todayís world of professional sport is not unlike that of any other discipline in which individual priorities far outweigh the supposedly national interest. If a celebrated Indian academic prefers to work in another country and not in India, he or she makes the choice obviously because the other country has more to offer towards his or her pursuit of knowledge. What matters is what is best for the advancement of learning and for the individualís own search for it. A player in any sport has also to think of the limited time he or she has to make the best of a career. For a professional, a sport is above all a career, just as acting is to a successful Bollywood actor. The time to achieve the best standards or to make money is short. The recognition of this changed scenario has prompted owners and managers of football teams in Europe to break national barriers and hire the best from different nations. The sooner the managers of Indian sports accept the primacy of individuals in sport, the better it will be for all games and the players.