The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi will offer to the rest of the world—by way of distraction, it is hoped, from gay rights protests—spangles and sequins and snow.
For India, where the Winter Games usually fall somewhere between exotic and alien, the ceremony will be watched with disbelief. Not for the spectacle it will present, but the absence it will contain.
Three Indians will compete in Sochi but India won’t. Not with an official contingent or any trappings like people called “chefs de mission” and a busload of managers. Or, indeed, even a flag.
The three Indians will walk out at the Fisht Olympic Stadium’s parade of athletes at the opening ceremony but not behind their tricolor, with its striking blue wheel, inspired by an historical motif from more than 2,000 years ago. For the duration of the games, the Indians will belong to a category called “independent athletes” and compete and turn up everywhere under the Olympic flag.
An “independent athlete” is technically one who has qualified for the Olympics but whose “nations have been dissolved or new nations have emerged due to political transition, or international sanctions have left athletes without a formal nation or NOC.”
The first independent athletes formally turned up at the Olympics in 1992. For some, their country was either being formed (Macedonia 1992 and East Timor 2000) or like the Caribbean island of Netherlands Antilles, which in 2010 did not exist as an independent nation any more. In 2012, a young Sudanese who had fled his country’s civil war competed at the London Olympics as an independent, as he was yet to be granted any passport.
Where does India fit into all this? Sochi is the first time an Indian contingent will take part in a mega event without the national flag. It has come to this awful pass because of an ongoing tussle from over a year ago between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) over governance, regulations and accountability. India has been suspended from the Olympic movement since December 2012 due to its failure to comply with the Olympic charter.
A pair of writers believe that “a commitment effectively to bad ethics” by administrators heading Indian Olympic sport had started what can only be called a mudslide.
The specifics regarding India in Sochi comes down to an absurdity: the date for another round of IOA election (as ordered by the IOC) is now scheduled for Feb. 9. Had the election been completed before Feb. 7, the start of the Winter Olympics, an official Indian contingent could have been fast tracked into Sochi. A previous IOA election had voted in a president and a secretary general, who had been charge-sheeted on grounds of corruption in two separate cases, in violation of the international Olympic code which was India had always been aware of but paid little attention to. (Both those men by the way, still turn up on in their “official” designations on the IOA’s website.)
Despite the start of the Sochi Olympics being a clear deadline, the election was not brought forward because of a sudden, somewhat disingenuous devotion to due process. One official was quoted as saying, “We have just three to five athletes who qualify (for Winter Games). We can’t act in haste. We need to ensure the proper process is followed.” A governance requirement by its own international ruling body was dodged for months—but a random date on a calendar was deemed sacrosanct.
Therein lies a snapshot of the mindset of the administrators who govern Indian Olympic sport and decades of their myopic vision and misplaced objectives. They have ensured that the Indian athlete is very rarely placed front and center in either policy or practice.
These officials belong to political parties across the entire ideological spectrum and have been successful shape shifters.
When asked by government to explain where taxpayers’ funds go, they cite “Olympic autonomy.”
When asked by the IOC to amend their constitution in line with the Olympic charter (including, not allowing charge-sheeted officials to contest elections) they say government structures do not allow them to follow these codes.
It is the same bunch of people, in office for decades, who are in bitter battle against the introduction of a radical sports bill in the Indian parliament which seeks to put age limit for officials in sports bodies and the number of years they can stand for and hold office.
The Sochi episode has brought global attention to Indian sport’s biggest failing, through the shortest, sharpest message possible–its athletes without its flag.
Athletes are solitary dreamers with individual, singular missions. Yet the sight of their country’s flag at a mega event brings home to them—like dark bold strokes off a thick paintbrush—their location in the larger picture of the sporting worlds.
To four-time Olympian ad Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, a quiet, stoic, thoughtful young man, the sight of his national flag at a world event contained in it, community, ownership, and his place in the sun. At an Olympics, Bindra says, even before the opening ceremony, there is a “welcoming ceremony” held for every arriving contingent at the Games village. It has flag, anthem et al: “When that flag goes up along with the others at the welcoming ceremony, it is the first sign you get that you’re actually at an Olympics. It hits you.”
Former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha who competed in Athens 2004 calls sighting the flag in pre-match ceremonies, his “goosebump moment.” And “nothing—money, fame, success—nothing can ever match that.”
When Bindra was awarded his gold at the flag-and-anthem ceremony in Beijing, he said, “you feel something so deep in your being—at what has happened, at what that moment means—it is tough to describe. You can only feel it.” At the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou China, Bindra remembers trap shooters from Kuwait (who were also competing as independent athletes) after winning gold. As the Kuwaitis watched the Olympic flag and the anthem play at the medal ceremony, Bindra says, “Their jaws dropped, their faces fell. Without their own flag, it was not the same thing.” One of them, Khaled Almudhaf told the Associated Press, said, “It hurts, and I cried twice… I want to take the IOC flag off and hear my national anthem. My heart was a rock.”
When asked about Sochi, V.K. Malhotra, an Indian sports official, told the Outdoor Journal it was “sad” that the contingent wouldn’t be carrying the flag at the Winter Olympics. Malhotra, 82, and president of Indian archery for 40 years, is then reported to have said, “However, the Indian Winter Olympic athletes don’t stand a chance of winning any medals either.” It made Bindra mad. “That statement hurt me a lot. It showed the atmosphere and the environment in Indian Olympic sport and how we treat our athletes as second-grade.”
When it became known that Indian athletes would walk out in Sochi under the Olympic flag, a newspaper described it as a “Walk of Shame.” The real shame, though, we must always remember and remind ourselves, must never lie with the athletes in Sochi. It must always be attached to the names of the men who will gather for their second (and second-grade) election on Feb. 9.