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I have been the victim of favouritism since 2012: Prajakta Sawant

I have been the victim of favouritism since 2012: Prajakta Sawant

Deepshikha Chatterjee

Published: 1 July 2018 10:25 AM GMT
In 2012, a young 20 year old badminton player in India dominated the sporting headlines after she did the unthinkable. Back then, the sport had just given India a hero to worship. Saina Nehwal had just won a Singles Bronze in the London Olympics and badminton was just beginning to force its way out as the next big sport in the country. The man whom everyone was starting to take notice of, Saina Nehwal's coach and himself a talented shuttler from his playing days, it seemed that Pullela Gopichand was the one to spearhead India to the top. It was at this juncture that 20-year old Prajakta Sawant
accused Gopichand of "mental harassment". The Bridge accessed a copy of a Court Order issued on Nov 3, 2014 where Prajakta raises issues of favouritism and conflict of interest against Gopichand. Back then, BAI had sided with the coach on the issue. Six years later, Prajakta finds herself compelled to take on people in positions of power once again, this time lashing out at the Badminton Association of India (BAI). Six years is a long time. Scenarios have changed. Badminton is now no longer the crouching tiger of a sport in India. Rather, in six years, it has sprung gracefully to carve a space for itself in the social consciousness of India's population by regularly producing champions. Pullela Gopichand himself, is now 
a member of the Selection Committee
and the Chief National Coach alongside running his own academy. But it seems that behind this glittering facade, the age old narrative plaguing Indian sports is as deep rooted as ever. On Thursday and Friday, social media users saw the beloved sport being dragged through mud for all the wrong reasons. It was on Friday that Prajakta added further fuel to the fire when she claimed that the Badminton Association of India had wrongfully withdrawn her participation from the upcoming World Championships on absolutely unjustified grounds. "Are they even allowed to do that
," questions an irate Prajakta during a conversation with The Bridge. "If they inform me or at least have the courtesy to take my consent on the matter, it's a different thing. But here, if I had not re-checked the entries on the official BWF website, I would not even have found out that our names were withdrawn." "I just booked my tickets for Malaysia, actually. I would have gone and trained with my partner there. It cost me INR 30k and now these tickets are useless. Is this money going to be refunded? Of course not," she added. The mess does not stop here, however. Sawant, along with her Malaysian partner Yogendran Krishnan were
ranked 51st in the world
on the date of qualification for the 2018 World Championships. https://twitter.com/prajakta_sawant/status/1012677177635155968 The Mixed Doubles pair who have been chosen to go to the World Championships in their stead is the then 67th ranked duo of Rohan Kapoor and Kuhoo Garg. Both players play and train at the Gopichand Academy and, additionally, Kuhoo's mother is an executive committee member at the Association.

Isn't this favouritism, asks Prajakta Sawant.

Since the issue started gaining traction over social media, the Badminton Association of India have been forced to make a statement regarding the same. The reason given behind this unceremonious exclusion is that Prajakta plays with a Malaysian partner and, it only seemed logical that an all-Indian pair be give precedence over an Indo-Malaysian pair.
"As such BAI is not empowered to send the name of a Malaysian citizen in Indian team,
" said Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief of BAI, as he concluded his argument. This does not seem to make any sense at all. Firstly, the same Indo Malaysian team had been deemed fit to participate in the World Championships last year. Secondly, according to Prajakta, both the administrative bodies in India and Malaysia had confirmed their participation only after which she had proceeded to book tickets to the elite tournament. As things stand, the authorities in Malaysia are left as flabbergasted as Prajakta over the recent developments. "
When I called up the BAI office to question this decision, I was told bluntly that 'we have orders from above.' I asked for a name so I could confront the person who is making my decisions for me. I was told that the name was not allowed to be divulged,"
says Prajakta. According to her, however, it is really not difficult getting to the bottom of the matter. Cases of discrimination against the promising Indian shuttler have been rife in the media ever since she decided to fight it out with the BAI and Gopichand in 2012. Standing up for herself and creating a ruckus over the issue has meant that Prajakta has been in the limelight for more reasons off the court than her achievements on it.
"When I was around 17, I was playing good Singles Badminton. Back then, Gopi told me that for reasons of National interest, I should switch to Doubles. He felt that I was more suited to the format and, also, that India lacked too many good Doubles players,
" Prajakta reminisces. But then, Gopi allegedly went on to add something that Prajakta still has trouble wrapping her head around.

"He said that if and only if I decide to join his Academy will he ensure that I get a strong Doubles partner to further my game with."

The statement left Prajakta visibly shocked. Up until then, she had been partnering a myriad of women in the senior circuit and was left without one fixed Women's Doubles teammate. Even after joining the academy, the only Doubles partner she got was in the Mixed category where she was assigned to play with Pranaav Jerry Chopra.

"Pressure by Gopi made people not want to play with me"

In Doubles Badminton, each change in a partner results in a loss of points. To climb back up the rankings with a new teammate is always a difficult task because one must start from scratch. This is the reason why, as Prajakta says, it is easier to hold a rank in Singles but it gets exponentially harder when your game, your ranking and your performance ends up being tied up to one other person. "What's worse is that since the incident in 2012 when I was forced to take BAI and Gopi to court, none of the other players were ready to team up with me,"
she recalls. "It was a particularly tough time. Maybe they wanted to play alongside me. Maybe they were afraid."

"The end result was that I was left abandoned," she finishes with a sigh.

Issues like this are what prompted the once promising player to take a shift to Malaysia as soon as she got the chance. This was where she found a stable partner to team up with in Yogendran Krishnan and set her sights on an upward curve regarding her game. In Malaysia she found support, she found sponsors but none of them were as important as finding a partner. In Yogendran Krishnan, Prajakta found a stable partner to compete with. (Image: The Asian Age) The pair went through 2017 with a high for two shuttlers who had only just started playing together. They won two International titles, the Mauritius International and the Egypt International. Interestingly, Prajakta is not the only shuttler in recent times to have spoken her mind. Her former Doubles partner Aparna Balan was left livid after she was snubbed for the Asian Games squad despite winning one of the selection tournaments conducted by the BAI.
"Actually, the entire selection process in India when it comes to tournaments like the Asian Games is messed up. If you want a fair policy, ask everyone to play,"
Prajakta says of the issue. "Maybe a few of the Singles players may be exempted but what about the Doubles pairs who have not won anything and yet continue getting exemptions?"

"In Malaysia, even the great Lee Chong Wei plays in the National tournaments."

"Why is the rule such that in National Championships, top players only play from the Quarterfinals? In all my years of play, I have not heard of this practice anywhere in the world,"
Prajakta comments. Also read: I have been cheated by the Federation | By Aparna Balan There is something inherently wrong when a favourite sport is sparked with such partiality and nepotism. Resorting to what-aboutery by saying that this is how things are always done when it comes to Indian sports does not help matters much. This kind of nepotism is openly carried out by Gopichand, says Prajakta. (Image: News18) The first step to solving a problem is recognising that there is one. Unfortunately, recent successes in the field of Badminton has ensured that most of the country looks at the sport through rose-tinted glasses; seeing only that which makes them happy and choosing to turn a deaf ear to the clamouring voices around it. Creating a ruckus and standing up for herself was something Jwala Gutta was famous for.
Why should athletes even have to spend time and energy calling out this disparity?
At the stage we are in, isn't it only right to ensure circumstances where they are able to concentrate on their game only?

The 2018 Commonwealth Games and a bagful of Badminton medals.

"Yes, after all medals are the only things that matter, don't they?" Prajakta claims with a slight touch of sarcasm to her voice as the conversation shifts to the recent exploits by shuttlers in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games "The thing is, immediately after the Badminton Asia Team Championships, one of the players who traveled to Gold Coast suffered a back injury.
This was disregarded and the said player went as a part of the team anyway,"
she says. The player in question hardly played more than a few matches in the tournament Team Events and was not able to progress too far in the Individual category either. But she was there to claim the accolades and add a Commonwealth Team Gold to her personal tally of medals. Additionally, her being a part of the team also added to the tally of medals won by Gopichand Academy students. "So you see, this is nothing new," Prajakta finishes.

"I am born an Indian. I have the right to play as an Indian."

"I have never considered playing under the Malaysian banner even when I got the chance to because why should I be the one to back down in face of these challenges?"
Prajakta questions.

"People who want to deny me my right to play for India by repeatedly not selecting me for national camps- they should be the ones to back down."

"There are numerous challenges facing an athlete in India. When you are forcibly distracted from your game you are compelled to speak out. People who point out inconsistent performances by us must really try walking in our shoes at times," she adds Maybe the glamour of badminton is soon going to lose its appeal with players coming and speaking out regarding exactly what bothers them. The question now is, will the general Indian sports fan be ready to accept these allegations against someone who has been hailed as a national hero? Or will Prajakta, like many of her seniors, be ostracized for challenging inherent power structures in the sport. All we can do is wait and watch and, maybe, trust the audience concerned that they may be able to view situations like these objectively. Watch the story here: https://twitter.com/TheBridge_IN/status/1014142610871668736
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