Multiple camera flashes popped and dozens of hands were stuck out at Rajyavardhan Rathore as he strode down the fourth floor corridor of the sports ministry section of Shastri Bhavan, the bureaucratic hub of New Delhi. Officials from the Sports Authority of India jostled for position to present bouquets of flowers and get their pictures taken with him.
It is a reception that contrasted with Rathore's first experiences in this building. Rathore wasn't the sports minister then. He couldn't drive past the multiple security guards in an official government vehicle. He wasn't even India's first individual Olympic silver medallist then. He was just another sports person seeking a favour. My journey in this ministry began at the reception, where I had to take permission to enter this building. So I know the sort of difficulties an athlete has to deal with," he said on his first day in office as the new Minister of Youth Affairs and sports.
"The goal and the philosophy of this ministry will be the respect and benefit of the athlete. There is only one VIP and that is the sportsman. This ministry has to work 24/7. The sportsman trains every single month and year. Therefore we will see how best we can provide that service to the sportsperson. This is a service ministry. We provide service to the sportsperson," he says.
It is a worthy ambition but one that will see him come up against entrenched interests in both the National Sports Federations and the Ministry itself, created at the time of the 1982 Asian Games. Rathore himself admits as much. "We have to change the environment and the attitude. However, I know that in this ministry there are many officers who supported not just me but a lot of athletes. The goal is to increase the number of such officers and create an environment for such officers," he said.
There are many pressing issues Rathore will have to deal with. There are truculent Sports Federations. He will have to find a way to ensure the National Sports Development Bill is finally drafted, goes to parliament and sees the light of day.
Rathore didn't address these issues on his first day. "Once I get briefings from the ministry, I will pick up what exactly is needed to be done. (We'll see) how we can improve the performance of the sportspersons, how we can improve the delivery systems and the management in the various institutions that we have created. (We need to) make it easy a sportsperson to come to the sports ministry or send a request and get it executed.
Much is expected of Rathore, the first athlete to hold this position (not withstanding Vijay Goel's claims to be a 'national level kho kho player'). Many former players had come out in support of his appointment. It is a tremendous burden of responsibility that rests on Rathore's broad shoulders to shake Indian sport out of its stupor. He admits the path will not be easy. "There were expectations even when I started my sporting career. But an athlete is never afraid of losing. At least I will make the start which Indian athletes and sport needs. Whether or not I win, I will not step back," he says.