Badminton age fraud - how deep is the rot?
Following the accusations against Lakshya Sen, India's badminton fraternity says age fraud is troublingly common. A national-level coach also alleges the 'Pullela Gopichand camp' could have had a hand.
The police case lodged against India's top male shuttler Lakshya Sen for alleged age fraud sent shockwaves through Indian sports last week.
The development has led to bewildered questions as to why the country's best badminton player would need to resort to illegitimate means, and if this indicates larger politics at play. But perhaps more troublingly, it has led to a light being flashed on a dark corner of Indian badminton - how rampant is age fraud in the sport?
A few national-level players and coaches The Bridge spoke to claimed that age fraud is a menace that is present at all age levels, and that it is not surprising that such allegations have been made against Sen.
A national-level player from Madhya Pradesh lamented that while the TW3 test (bone test) could be the solution to weed out all culprits, the test is not conducted at most state-level or national-level meets.
"One of my U15 opponents during a state-level match in 2018 had a beard. I asked the referees to do a bone test on him, but they said he had provided his birth certificate. A couple of years later, I was up against a 20-year-old in an U17 match. After the tournament, this person showed me he had two different Aadhar cards, with two different DOBs. That is how easy it is," he said.
"These days the problem has reduced a little because of strict punishments. When we go to all-India tournaments, it's written in the circular that if anyone has suspicion of anyone else committing age fraud, they should approach the authorities," he added.
A senior coach, who used to be a national-level badminton player himself in the 1970s, elaborated how the age fraud problem had reached comical proportions in the period between the 1960s to 1980s, before systemic steps brought it down. Even the legendary Syed Modi, the 1982 Asian Games bronze medallist and Commonwealth Games champion, was guilty of it.
"The whole problem began when the government started sports quota recruitment to jobs. The great Syed Modi and his brother Syed Haider were infamous for reducing their ages by 3-4 years. Even Sanjeev Sharma was notorious for it. There was a running joke in badminton circles that these players would never become senior players," he said.
According to this senior coach, who is still active at the national level, the problem reached its peak in Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s when the secretary of the state badminton association also doubled up as an officer in the employment exchange. This led to a cocktail of sporting merit and job eligibility, with fairness left to lie by the court-side. This model subsequently travelled to other states.
Why age fraud?
The primary motivation of age fraud - securing better government jobs by competing against players over whom the offender has an age advantage - has remained the same even today.
In 2019, a writ petition was filed in court by 37 parents whose children said they quit the sport after losing to over-age players. Their petition highlighted that according to Badminton Association of India (BAI) records, several of the country's top junior players were born at home, while some joined school before they even started walking. Even this year, an all-India U13 tournament in Mohali saw protests from parents against two Rajasthan-born children who had allegedly manipulated their age, leading to their suspension.
But everyone seems to agree that the age fraud menace has reduced massively in recent times. Scientific tests have been brought in since the 1990s. If someone is caught, not only is the athlete suspended, but there are strict steps taken against the state association he/she is representing.
Which is why the senior coach The Bridge spoke to was confounded by the accusations against Lakshya Sen.
"Lakshya Sen and Chirag Sen used to draw crowds at every age level starting from the U9 level. I have not heard of a top player like him being accused of age fraud in many years. He has been in the public eye for so long. He must have also taken the TW3 test, which does not leave much scope for vagueness," he said.
"I smell politics in the accusations against Lakshya. This could be an attempt by the Pullela Gopichand camp to drag down Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar's star ward," he added.
While allegations and counter-allegations fly within Indian badminton and skeletons threaten to tumble out of the closet, there is of course more than what meets the eye in Lakshya Sen's case.
Sen's history with age fraud
This isn't the first time that the badminton-loving Sen family has been involved in an age-fraud case.
In 2018, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had said that manipulation in birth certificates had been consciously done by the parents of Chirag Sen, Lakshya's elder brother. Chirag had been barred from U17 badminton events by BAI following this.
An anonymous Quora post from 2018 written by someone who claimed to be a state-level player from Uttarakhand said: "When I used to play Chirag was elder than me and Lakshya was playing in U-10 championships. Chirag was elder to me then but he is 19 now and I am 24...They had their age lessened to shameless numbers. Their draws were also set by their father and it literally went like a home business."
A few days after this, Lakshya was found over-age in a compulsory medical examination conducted by BAI.
"We have to take a decision on Lakshya Sen, Aakarshi Kashyap, Dhruv Kapila...there are a few other names on the list. But some problems are arising regarding this, we will be taking a decision on this soon," Ajay Singhania, General Secretary of the BAI, had said.
The rumours seemed to go away after that, but four years later, the question on Lakshya's age is facing its biggest trial.