Neither side has come out of this joust looking good. Haryana’s Department of Sports and Youth Affairs and some of its athletes who won medals in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast have been sparring in public eye, leading to the cancellation of a scheduled felicitation in Panchkula on Thursday.
Sadly, neither the 13 medallists who united to reject the State Government proposal to adjust the reward money after taking into account the rewards announced by Railways or Services, not Haryana took into account the impact the decision to cancel the function would have on athletes who did not pick up handsome cheques from Railways or Services.
What’s worse, instead of returning to training for the Asian Games, some of them have disappointingly caused a storm that has led to the Haryana Government cancelling its plans for felicitation. Surely, they could have found a more graceful way in which to communicate with the State Government than make such a fuss.
Of course, the athletes had the option of turning up for the function and returning the cheques pending a decision on their appeal. But it would appear that they are in no mood for such niceties. It is a sign of the times that there seems nobody around to advise them to make their point in a better and more convincing fashion.
Here’s a disclaimer. Not for a moment am I suggesting that the athletes have not done a good job of winning medals. Of course, they have done very well to earn themselves podium finishes in the Commonwealth Games and the rewards that follow. But then for them to make it seem like they are demanding rewards from their State Government does not leave a great taste.
Perhaps, it is poetic justice that the function did not take place at all. For, it is not as if Haryana now making claims of being home for the medallists has helped them in their development phase or in their training as elite athletes. The transition of athletes to the elite stage has been facilitated in National camps, funded by the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
Over the past few years, delighted that it has taken over from Punjab as the nursery of Indian sport, Haryana rushed to reward all Haryanvis, irrespective where they were based. Now, it finds itself in a corner, driven by adamant athletes whose all-or-nothing approach has climaxed in the cancellation of the scheduled function to honour them.
To make it worse, wrestler Bajrang Punia told The Tribune that it is not about money but about respect. How can forcing the State Government to cancel a function be respectful of either the Government or fellow athletes? Now, nine Haryana athletes who are not employed either by Railways or Services have no idea whether they would be rewarded or not.
Time was when an athlete would be happy to be honoured at a function. The amount on the cheque was not important. This is an era when athletes have National camps with their board and lodging as well as training being taken care of. Not too long ago, an athlete like Anju Bobby George would invest the incentive money she got from the Central Government into her training.
Clearly, the times have changed. After all, some of the nation’s well-to-do athletes have preferred to not give up the 50,000-rupee a month pocket allowance they get from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. If we expect them to play the perfect role models with no desire to draw pocket money from public funds, perhaps we are mistaken.
This is also the time for the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to draw up a grading system where the Commonwealth Games competitions in some disciplines like wrestling, weightlifting, shooting and boxing are not treated at par with other sports like the athletics, hockey and swimming. Similarly, it needs to distinguish sport in the Asian Games as well.
The incentives, rewards and awards must be in keeping with the degree of difficulty in winning medals in such events. It will then make it easy for State Governments to ensure that their own rewards policies are in keeping with such a gradation system. More importantly, it will discourage athletes in some sport from choosing the Commonwealth Games over the Asian Games.
The throaty and complaining voices that are heard about incentives and awards – be it monies that State Governments disburse or the National Sports Awards or the Padma Awards – indicate that the innate desire to rake in the honours is becoming more apparent than the desire of playing for the nation. It has become the norm now to express one’s grouse on public platforms and get away.
Indeed, Manoj Kumar and Vinesh Phogat’s bouts in Gold Coast were completed quickly but this battle of theirs along with 11 others against the State Government seems set to be a long-drawn affair. And a rather unseemly one.
An edited version of this article was first published on thequint.com on April 26th