By Divyat Rungta

Edited by, Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Sarita Devi’s refusal to accept her bronze medal at the Incheon Asian Games 2014 has drawn varied opinions by journalists and sports persons. Refusing a bronze medal and handing it over to the silver medal ‘winner’ at a world stage is definitely not a pretty picture. Her act was clearly an emotional one. Was there a better way to react to the humiliating decision that evidently handed a semi-final match to the hosts?  It is perhaps easier said than done to profess to feel the pain and agony that she might have felt in that moment. Perhaps none of us reading this article have come even remotely close to experiencing the sweat and toils of a professional athlete in India.

As much as this can be debated, the fact is that whether she should have reacted this way or not is quite secondary in terms of the larger picture. The primary concerns remain as to the two events that got her in that humiliated and helpless state of mind in the first place. These are fundamental issues, which many have become indifferent to, but have been blots on our sports consciousness for a very long time.

Firstly, Sarita Devi was yet another victim of the infamous bias in judging when it comes to South Korea being hosts. As hosts, Korea has had a history of unfair judging in favor of the home team. Be it the Seoul Asian Games 1986 or the Seoul Olympics 1988, there have been numerous instances of this malpractice by the judges. To make things worse, South Koreans dominate senior positions in the international boxing federation. Boxing is one of those sports that does have an element of subjectivity in it. To put things into perspective, a boxer is given a point when the knuckle facing side of his or her hands lands a punch on the opponent’s body above the waist. However, there are several other factors which influence the scoring, such as aggression, control over the match, and physical conditions of both players over the time of each bout. Thus, a judge can refrain from punching the electronic machine based on his perception of the state of the game. The loopholes in the scoring system don’t just end here. During a bout, the scores are made public only on the television, not at the arena. Thus, a boxer is completely in the dark about the match situation, and cannot adjust his or her game accordingly. There have been some serious flaws in the scoring system that have made such biased results even possible, unlike other games which are scored objectively. The international bodies will have to take bold steps to bring in transparency and avoid such possibilities.

The event that followed this is the more disturbing one and is of national shame. After suffering the humiliation of the decision, Sarita Devi had to literally beg and borrow $500 to lodge the official complaint which had to be done within 30 minutes of the match. There was not a single official that stepped up to raise the matter to higher authorities. What is most shocking is the fact that India’s Chef de Mission for the Games was a former athlete himself, and for him to make a mere appearance on the scene 48 hours after the match is absolutely inexplicable.

This attitude is something that really wounds the spirit of sportsmanship, and is one that needs to be addressed at the earliest. The sports ministry, our sports federations and the Indian Olympic Association, have literally become extensions of an underlying political agenda, and are now saturated with rampant corruption and apathy towards their core functions. There is that persistent and irritating belief in the officials that they are the bosses, and the sportspersons are mere subjects in their business. To trace the root cause of this apathy amongst officials, we will have to go back to the general apathy of professional sports in India. Since almost every game apart from cricket is always short of funds to raise top quality athletes, any person with financial resources can become the ‘babu’ of the federation and have his or her way. There is a dire need of synergy between the ministry, federations and IOA to work towards a common goal of ensuring hassle free conditions for our athletes to perform in. Quite often, our athletes are not fighting their opponents, but in fact the system they have been bred in. We also need to push for greater roles of professional sports management agencies and former players in the system.

As to what Sarita Devi did, I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart. Her tears at the podium were not of sadness, but of frustration.  As someone who has played tennis in the junior circuit for a good 4 years, I can say for a fact that being at the receiving end of dodgy decisions is very much part and parcel of the game. Thus, someone who has reached the peak of representing India at an international level has been through a hell of a lot already. And then to be subjected to what Sarita Devi had to experience, at an Asian Games event, is hard to put in words. She has not only inspired a nation, but has also woken up the world to something that many had become indifferent to or never knew existed.

Lastly, there have been far too many cases of indifferent attitudes, and even something as degrading as sexual assaults, levied on Indian officials. I sincerely hope the noise Sarita Devi has made is not curtailed by giving her an award or two. It’s a wake-up call to clean up the system, which has time and again let down the nation by not letting our athletes flourish to their potential.

Divyat Rungta is currently a second year student pursuing B.A Economic (Hons) in Shri Ram College of Commerce. He is a die-hard sports lover and enjoys listening to Indie music. He has been deeply influenced by his parents, teachers, and the Indian Army! As a member of Enactus SRCC, he spends a lot of time working on social entrepreneurship projects undertaken by the team. Having the opportunity to interact with various communities and give them a sustainable livelihood has made a huge impact in his personal life. He strongly believes the student community has the responsibility of shaping a new India, and wants to make a significant contribution to it.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind