Trial and Error: High time for Indian Sports Federations to amend their selection policies
Ahead of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, the Indian team selections for the event have been plagued by controversies - from athletics to table tennis, because of faulty selection policies, indicating a need for change.
With the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games fast approaching, the country has been abuzz with discussions regarding the selection of teams for the quadrennial sporting event. This shouldn't come as a surprise as, like so many other things in Indian sports, the selection process too, is plagued with some controversy or the other, making it a hot topic of debate.
In the wrestling trials for the CWG, one athlete was suspended for slapping an official after an unfavourable decision. As many as four members of the Indian table tennis fraternity went to the court after being denied a place on the CWG team as did a member of the track and field contingent. The question is simple. Why is it so hard to select a team for a marquee event like the Commonwealth Games?
Unsurprisingly, all of these controversies surface when it comes to picking the team for the Games. There's never a headline-grabber when it comes to selection for the world championships.
A significant factor is the disparity of prize money for medal winners between the two events. And despite the National Sports Federations (NSFs) knowing this, they still continue to practice arbitrary selection policies — usually trials — to pick their best team for the Games.
The athletes who are selected might be the best on the said day but that doesn't mean they are good enough or have the experience to stand up against the elite opponents and deal with the pressure they are likely to face at a big event.
At the recently conducted women's boxing CWG trials, one of the boxers, who is now bound for Birmingham, was seemingly outclassed by her opponent in the final. However, the decision went against the better pugilist as the judges deemed the (now) selected boxer was not allowed to play her game. That's a perplexing idea to process. Yes, the selected boxer has talent and will probably be one of the future stars of Indian boxing. But if she was not "allowed to play her game" by an Indian opponent with whom she trained every day, is that not a sign that she is not ready for the Games?
While one can understand that the selection process will always result in complaints, especially in a subjective sport like boxing, it is surprising that controversies crop up in sports with objective standards like athletics.
Let's take the case of the selection policy set by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) for the women's 400m. The AFI entry standard for the CWG women's quarter-mile is 50.13s. Not only is that faster than the national record, but it's also a lot faster than the gold-winning time at the last two Games – Jamaica's S.McPherson's 50.67s (2014 Glasgow) and Botswana's Amantle Montsho's 50.15s (2018 Gold Coast).
In fact, the qualifying standard is very close to CWG's record of Montsho's 50.10s at the 2010 edition in Delhi. These arbitrary marks have left India without representation in the 400m women's event.
Now let's look at the case of the chaos surrounding the selection of the men's high jump where Tejaswin Shankar wasn't picked for the CWG initially despite meeting the AFI's own qualification standard of 2.27m. The reason given by the federation was that Tejaswin made the qualifying mark at the NCAA championships and did not participate in the Inter-State Nationals held in Chennai which were also the trials to pick the team for Commonwealth Games.
Currently, AFI has included five more names including Tejaswin Shankar for CWG 2022 on the condition that the quota for athletics is increased by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) from the current number of 36 but this requires further approval by the IOA.
This is not to say that there shouldn't be a level playing field for athletes. But it's clear that India really has a fascination with conducting trials. Anyone can pick an athlete if you are just going by their performances on paper. However, I think the coaches who actually track the progression over the season by an athlete and who truly know their capability should have a more important role to play in this entire process.
We have examples to show this works. Ahead of the Thomas Cup, Indian men's singles player HS Prannoy was picked despite not appearing for selection trials for that tournament. Former Chief National Coach Vimal Kumar reasoned that Prannoy, despite being injury-prone, was India's best prospect in the third men's singles player position since he had the ability to pull off upsets and is quite the giant-slayer.
Kumar would later say he was under pressure for his choice but he ultimately stuck to it. It was a decision that would be proven correct as Prannoy would end up winning two critical matches that eventually see India winning their first Thomas Cup title in 73 years.
BAI's choice to pick Prannoy without a trial this year contrasts favourably with their decision to drop Lakshya Sen from the team for the 2020 Thomas Cup. Sen, despite being India's best player at that point, surprisingly lost his match in the trials. India went to the competition without their best player and unsurprisingly failed to medal.
The majority of the National Federations need to review their selection policies to form the best squad. They can take examples from the selection processes of the countries that have produced proven champions and then inculcate that in our trial system.
The trials for the US Wrestling Team for the Olympics are one the best ways to pick a team. Performances at major competitions are taken into account while deciding the draw and determining who goes to the finals and who will compete in the semi-finals or earlier.
For perspective, during the Tokyo Olympic trials for men's freestyle, any senior world championship participant and final world team trials champions from 2017 (the Olympic cycle) onwards automatically got a spot at the trials. Those who won a medal in the Olympic weights advanced straight to the finals while the ones in non-Olympic categories were given the semi-final spot.
Champions from Continental qualifiers and the Junior and U23 winners were also given a berth to give a chance to the upcoming talent. The finals themselves are always played out in the best of 3 format. That reduces the possibility of an upset determining the team composition.
In India, after the Tokyo Games, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) also made changes to its Olympic trials policy. Instead of now sending the wrestler who won the berth, they will now have trials. The champion of that trial will then meet the wrestler who had bagged the quota place for India. If the wrestler from the trials wins, then there will be another bout to determine the entry. However, if the latter wins in the first bout, then he earns the right to represent the country.
It is not completely fair but will now at least give others a shot at the Olympics despite missing out on the qualification. It is one way to promote healthy competition domestically. Let's hope more federations put similar thought into their selection processes going forward and not make the selection process such a controversy-marred affair, hampering the image of Indian sports.