The Asian Games website tells me that there's eight days to go before the start of Jakarta-Palembang 2018 and the Games torch has touched down in Bandar Lampang, 250km from Jakarta. The Games motto this time around is "Energy of Asia" (in Incheon 2014, it was 'Diversity Shines Here'). From India, the message emanating oscillates between "Bedlam Rules Here" and "Ennui of Asia." There is supposed to be a sending-off event also at some point on August 10 in New Delhi. But with a week to go, there is no official tally yet on the actual names and numbers of the Indian contingent for the 2018 Asian Games.
Over the past few months, the number of participants has gone from 906 athletes across 40 sports in the original list sent to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport in June, to 523, to 541 in 36, and finally a figure that is being cited as 575 in 38 disciplines. The deadline for submitting entries with specific names was June 30; it must be said the Indonesians are very generous and understanding hosts.
While Indian Olympic sport has always functioned in a constant state of disorganisation, Jakarta-Palembang is a record-breaker of sorts. En route the announcement of the final contingent there have been 10 appeals in various courts around the country on matters of selection across seven sports - equestrian, badminton, taekwondo, athletics, handball, sailing and traditional boat racing. Multi-discipline games have tended to attract a court case or two over selections in the past; seven sports and 10 cases indicate that the areas of doubt and dissent have only grown. In no previous Asian or Commonwealth Games have such a number of athletes made such a dash towards the courts.
Which tells you that either athletes have become astonishingly bold or Indian sports administration has gone into a doom-driven spiral. Given that India is now producing competitors across a range of sport, the searchlight must point at the poor old governors in the national sports federations (NSFs). The cases were about selection and omission and, in the case of the equestrian competition, about first sending a team, then changing their mind and then making a quick decision to re-send.
What we saw transpire in the weeks leading to the Asian Games was a festival of bickering. Within a national federation itself, across factional divisions, like army and civilians in rowing and equestrian, or individuals concerned like the trapeze artists of our gymnastics. One level up from there is the bickering between the NSF and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), who are themselves in a perpetual state of high-level bickering with the sports ministry as the contingent names and numbers go back and forth.
It is unseemly, it is boring and, deep into the second decade of the 21st century, it is unacceptable. The court cases are all against the governors of the sport and deal with selection criteria put down and then not observed. Bangalore-based sports lawyer Nandan Kamath, who is one of the founders of the GoSports Foundation, says that the slew of sports cases does in its own way spell out a "positive." One, he says, is that there are now a larger number of athletes of merit seeking selection and, second, it is a reflection of "athletes asserting rights and putting pressure on federations who have not kept their side of the bargain."
What this also indicates, he points out, is the urgent need to set up a national 'sports tribunal' as a redressal mechanism for grievances in Indian sports administration. It will act as the national Court of Abritration for Sport, working outside India's formal legal system, which is weighed down already by a gigantic backlog. The setting up of a sports tribunal is part of the latest draft of a new national sports code which is hanging fire somewhere between the sports ministry and the law ministry, each party wondering at what opportune time in terms of brownie-points-scoring could it be sprung upon the public. The truth is that as long as there is unprofessional, prejudiced or inefficient management, athletes will keep going to court. The most Indian sport can dream of is less than 10 cases in seven disciplines before Tokyo 2020.
But let's not get all serious. Since Jakarta-Palembang is a multidiscipline Games, medals must always be awarded among the ten cases. In a contest of omnishambles, the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI) wins by a nose. They have galloped between selection announcement and withdrawal notice, then trotted out a change of heart and are now nibbling over switching rider-horse combinations, all in order, they say, "to get the best possible result." Switching horses, one would imagine, is not like switching tyres during an F1 pitstop. Or switching even the cars. Hell, cricketers don't switch their bats without weeks of breaking into a new one in training. But what do we know. Who could possibly be more in tune with the feelings of Medicott, Vini Vedi Vici, Viril Peccau, Frimeur Record (our noble steed heading for Jakarta) than the EFI. Gentlemen, a gold medal for horsing around.
Order, order. Let the Games begin.