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India in Olympic meddle mess

New Delhi, Dec. 4: The International Olympic Committee today suspended India after citing government interference in tomorrow’s scheduled Indian Olympic Association elections, shocking athletes and turning the spotlight on a mess-up by the warring national body and sports ministry.

Indian athletes can still participate in all international events such as the Olympics and the Asian Games but India as a team cannot. The athletes will have to compete under the Olympic flag.

The reason for the suspension is that the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) election will not be held entirely according to the national body’s own constitution, as mandated by the Olympic Charter, but partly under a “sports code” dictated by the Indian government.

The code bars the principal office-bearers of all national sports federations from holding their positions beyond three terms of four years each, or the age of 70. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the election would now be “null and void”.

The world body isn’t concerned about the code’s merits but only about who is imposing it. The IOC is extremely sensitive about government interference in sport and had in the past suspended countries such as Iraq and Kuwait on this ground.

Some sources said the “real” reason behind the IOC’s anger was that Lalit Bhanot was set to be elected secretary-general unopposed tomorrow. The IOC’s ethics committee had said Bhanot, Suresh Kalmadi and V.K. Verma — three sports administrators tainted by the Commonwealth Games corruption scandal — should have no place in the Olympic movement.

But had the IOA incorporated the sports code in its statutes, as the Centre had nudged it to, the world body could not have objected. But IOA officials, some of them holding their posts for more than 30 years, had vehemently opposed the code while the two previous sports ministers, M.S. Gill and Ajay Maken, tried to turn it into a bill.

Eventually, the cabinet rejected Maken’s efforts at parliamentary sanction but a high court said the IOA must hold its elections under the code.

In the past two weeks, the IOC twice warned the IOA of suspension if the elections were held under the code. Today, the suspension order was passed by the IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Some sportspersons expressed outrage at the IOA; others feared for their medal ambitions, though the Asiad and the Olympics are two and four years away, respectively.

“Bye-bye, IOA. Hope to see you soon, hope to see you clean,” shooter Abhinav Bindra, gold-medallist at Beijing, said.

“I’m absolutely shocked.... It’s the athletes who will suffer if the situation is not resolved quickly,” said Olympic bronze-winning boxer Mary Kom in her initial reaction. “There’s no point continuing our hard work if we can’t participate in the Olympics.”

It wasn’t clear if she knew that individual athletes could still participate in IOC events.

While the suspension may seem to stem largely from the Olympic family’s attempts to protect its autonomy and the Centre’s eagerness to interfere in sports administration, sources said the bitter squabbling within the IOA played a part. They said Randhir Singh, IOA secretary-general and IOC member from India, had a key role in triggering the suspension.

Initially a candidate for IOA president, Randhir had withdrawn from the race citing the way the elections were being held in violation of the Olympic Charter --- a comment many believe was an invitation to the IOC to act. Randhir, apparently, had no chance to win the election.

As long as the suspension remains in force, the IOA will not receive grants from the IOC and its officials will remain banned from the world body’s events and meetings.

IOA officials such as acting president V.K. Malhotra and Indian National Lok Dal politician Abhay Chautala, who was set to be elected IOA president unopposed tomorrow, blamed the government and Randhir for the mess. The sports ministry said it was watching the situation.

“It’s an unfortunate development that could have easily been avoided,” sports secretary Pradeep Kumar Deb told The Telegraph.

He claimed the sports code had basically been lifted from the Olympic Charter and that the IOA could easily have incorporated it into its constitution and avoided suspension.

The IOA executive committee did propose such amendments to the sports body’s constitution but eventually refrained from getting them passed in the general body.

“Last month, I had written to the IOC suggesting a meeting of all stakeholders (IOC, IOA and the sports ministry) and a temporary suspension of the elections to solve the problem. But the IOA then attacked the ministry and rejected our suggestion,” Deb said.

One possible solution is that the IOA will eventually cave in and change its statutes because the national sports federations, from which it draws its office-bearers, are too dependent on government funds to be able to defy the sports ministry for long.

Before the London Olympics, where India won a record six medals, the government spent Rs 260 crore on the athletes’ preparations.

Tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi, banned from playing for India over a recent controversy and close to retirement, saw a funny side.

“So I got banned, now the IOA gets banned, they says things like these normally happen in three’s.. Wonder what’s next!!” he tweeted.

The Indian cricket board too seemed to be enjoying the discomfiture of the sports ministry, which had tried to clip its autonomy.

Board officials said they might now ask the ministry to return the Rs 50 crore the board had contributed towards the development of medal prospects.