The dark side of Indian Taekwondo

On July 26, 2018, the Delhi High Court came out with a definitive response to a very long and drawn out saga that chronicled the dissatisfaction and unfair treatment that had been meted out to India’s top Taekwondo players who, incidentally, were also slated to be significant medal prospects at the upcoming Asian Games.

The entire courtroom drama unfolded at the end of a long list of complaints, grievances and opinions against the Indian Olympic Association that have vocally made their presence felt in the rundown to the multi-sport tournament in Jakarta.

The Bridge spoke to multiple people involved in the legal proceedings to gain a reasonably broad idea of the events which led to this slightly messy showdown less than a month before the Asian Games.

July 4, 2018

Before every tournament, a lot of feathers are ruffled immediately after selections are announced. They usually turn out to be a mixture of justified complaints while also spattered with cases where the aggrieved party has no claim of inclusion to the contingent that will be representing the country.

For a major chunk of Indian Taekwondo players, however, the Indian Olympic Association’s announcement regarding its sport-wise breakdown for the Jakarta tournament spelt a nightmare.

17-year old Kashish Malik was among them. A Std 12 Student in the capital of India, Kashish was all set for a shot at participating in the Asian Games to prove her mettle on a prominent stage like that. The teenager, wise far beyond her years, had already announced her coming within the circuit of the discipline with a couple of consecutive victories at Asian Invitational tournaments earlier this year.

Till date, all her international appearances and victories had been funded by her family- a gesture that clearly showed the belief in their child’s dreams and potential that her family had for her. The Taekwondo Federation of India, caught up within legal and administrative battles of their own, had precious little time and resource to support this upcoming talent.

A Std 12 Student in the capital of India, Kashish was all set for a shot at participating in the Asian Games to prove her mettle on a prominent stage like that

On this particular day, the day that it became clear the IOA had cleared five names to represent India in Taekwondo at the Asian Games, Kashish was in Ranchi. A few days before that, the Taekwondo Federation of India had issued a circular directing its players to attend the Asian Games selection trials being held in the city.

This was the tournament she had been waiting for. This was the stage that she had been practising all her life for. A young 17-year old girl who had done all she could do live her dream. Through her journey, all she had told herself was that “My best day is not here yet.” Speaking earlier to The Bridge, Kashish had the spark and excitement at the prospect of representing India in the Asian Games.

A dream, as she found out, that was rudely snatched away after, with a myriad of arbitrary excuses, the Taekwondo Federation of India and the IOA had managed to send across the five names without any sort of selection trial at all. What’s even more appalling was that Kashish was not the only one so blatantly overlooked by the governing body in sending the final list of names. So what exactly went down?

Let’s take a detour and go further back.

March 10, 2015

The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports floated across guidelines for selections to major multi-sport events stressing that these were the criteria which were to be ideally considered before accreditations and clearances were sent to athletes for the same.

The relevant mandate states, “In non-measurable individual sports, the sportspersons must have achieved 6th rank in the last 12 months. In the sports events, where rankings are not maintained or where sportspersons have not been able to improve their ranking on account of reasons like lack of exposure in international tournaments, appropriate criteria may be adopted by the National Sports Federation (NSF) in consultation with this Ministry. In the sports competitions, where the number of participants is limited, stricter norms of selection will be prescribed.”

You can read the entire mandate here.

This is the underlying principle that is binding for selections to all multi-sport tournaments. This was severely undermined, and we try to explain how.

June 26, 2018

The TFI issues a mandate saying that Selection trials for the Asian Games will be conducted in Ranchi beginning from June 28. The dates were set keeping in mind the fact that the last date for submission of names to the Indian Olympic Association had been set for June 30. But the circular in question issued by TFI, effectively passed on responsibility to the IOA saying that a delay in confirmation from the latter body had resulted in such short notice being given for the Selection Trials.

“…this trial would have been announced 15-20 days back for the 23rd and 24th of June 2018, but SAI informed me that SAI will hold trial,” said the circular signed by Secretary General Prabhat Sharma. “Later on I could know from SAI that the IOA will form Ad Hoc Committee for conducting trial, but IOA told us till today IOA has not received any information from Ministry of Sports, Government of India.”

Passing on responsibility seems to be the norm. Especially since none of the bodies involved in the above snippet seemed to have done nothing close to what they had claimed the procedure will be.

Screenshot of the relevant circular, a copy of which is with The Bridge.

“Even back then, it was unprofessional,” says Preeti Malik, sister of Kashish Malik. “A two-day notice is just not done.”

The circular went on to say, “Considering this serious situation, we are now compelled to hold this selection trial to save our players’ participation in the 18th Asian Games…”

Notice how the term “Selection Trials” has now been used to describe the camp in Ranchi.

July 1- July 5 2018

A circular by TFI speaks of an association with a foreign coach intending to a preparation camp for the players shortlisted in the selection trials. Four days later, another circular was issued going back on the wording of the previous one which said that these were not, in fact, selection trials but preparatory ones. These camps would have no bearing on the list of athletes who had already been cleared by the IOA as that decision was final and binding.

Copies of the relevant circulars accessed by The Bridge

However, for all their excuses, not one person could satisfactorily answer the question as to how and why two auspicious names, Purva Dattatray and Kashish Malik had been overlooked. Even in the absence of a valid selection trial, the performance by the two players had provided them with enough backing to stake a claim for an Asian Games berth legitimately. Secondly, why was the promise of a Selection trial held over the players when clearly, as the various instances of vagueness seem to suggest, conducting a fair and transparent trial was never even on the cards?

Both Purva and Kashish are Gold medalists in their respective weight categories at the Asian Games Invitational tournament held earlier this year.

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The case

“There are two ways how the players can be selected,” says Saurabh Jain, the advocate who is speaking for both Kashish and Purva in court, while speaking to The Bridge “One is that the selection trials are conducted by the concerned Federation- which the TFI has not done in our case because it has been derecognised by the MYAS.”

In this scenario, the Government issued a letter way back on June 22 to the IOA directing them to conduct selection trials for Taekwondo keeping the Asian Games in mind,” he continues. “For this, a representative from SAI was also nominated. The IOA refused to conduct this, and the reason they gave was that it is too late for them to organise a trial.”

The issues surrounding the TFI in India are many with none of them seeming close to a solution. Most of them, interestingly, involves the IOA.

As a Federation not recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs of Sports, it was easy to cite this non-recognition as a reason to not be in a position to conduct legitimate Selection trials for the Asian Games. The rift within the TFI, due to problematic elections, has resulted in two separate factions both of which, to make matters worse, operate under the banner of the TFI.

The elected body of the Federation has two major names- Chetan Anand, who took over after the Delhi High Court forced the governing body to hold elections amid an ongoing power dispute. Back then, Anand had ousted the incumbent head of the organisation, Renu Mahant, to seize control of the TFI. The other major office bearer is Prabhat Sharma, who was elected as general secretary.

The Emergency Executive Council Meeting which took place in July 2016 and which culminated in the election as mentioned above was also carried out, according to the TFI, to “prevent the interference of Indian Olympic Association in the autonomy”.

Here is Case 1 of the rift between the IOA and the TFI despite the fact that the latter is presently an IOA recognised governing body.

“In the absence of selection trials, the process for selecting the right candidates is quite vague. To be honest, you can say that there is no process at all,” Saurabh observes. “The IOA calls for a longlist from the TFI. The IOA then makes its decision based on whatever arbitrary criteria they think is appropriate.”

The hearing

“The Legal Counsel of the IOA in court tried to push the matter in their favour,” says Saurabh on the day the trial reached its final stage.

While the legal team had been deliberating on appointing a one-man committee representing the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to have the final say in the matter, the Legal Counsel of the IOA put up stiff opposition.

Their claim lay in the fact that the IOA is the governing body with the power to ensure the best Indian participation in major tournaments in the list of which falls the Asian Games too.

One wonders where the merit lies in such an objection when the IOA has failed in their responsibilities, not just in Taekwondo but other sports as well. As mentioned previously, this is not remotely the first legitimate opposition that we have seen in the days leading up to a major tournament.

One might argue that, in most cases, the concerned Federation had often been at fault for failing to provide the necessary clarity upon their selection norms. But given the fact the IOA has the final say in matters, at least it did previously, these instances of faux pas cannot be disregarded at all.

The TFI has a lot of pending litigations, actually,” Saurabh says.

All National Sports Federations in India are affiliated to the IOA.

In case of any problems that arise, there is Disputes Commission specifically set up by the IOA to counter, look into and litigate. The rival factions of the TFI and the consequent suffering of the sport were one such case which had been taken up by the Disputes Commission. Back in October 2017, a letter had been issued from the head of the said Committee to the President of the IOA urging the need for fresh elections within the TFI.

On this issue, Saurabh has this to say, “The President then mandated the Secretary to look into it but the elections never happened. We had to file another Writ Petition in January pointing out the unnecessary struggles and harassments that the players and the sport were going through.”

“We had also suggested that in the meantime, SAI should take over the management of Taekwondo. The way TFI runs is very messed up. Every day there’s a new letter and the next day there’s another circular which completely overturns the previous one,” he says. “Aren’t the players suffering enough?”

“In the meantime, the IOA, in an attempt to retain their elected officials during the March elections, gave the issue of Taekwondo Federation a go-by. They may say that they recognise the TFI on paper and in court. But they failed their responsibility the minute they chose to not abide by their own decisions of conducting fresh elections within the Federation,” Saurabh continues.

The Court Order

The order which seeks a one-man committee appointed to explicitly have the final say in the matter brings a sigh of relief to the players who unquestionably deserve to travel to Jakarta. It says that all is indeed not lost and that the timely intervention of the country’s legal body did take a favourable decision in this case.

“We are just happy that now, a person who knows the exact workings of the sport will now be taking over the matter. His decision will be final, and we will be happy to abide by it,” Preeti Malik quips in.

The order points out to the peculiar circumstances of the case it had taken up adding that whatever decisions it was constrained to make are in the best interests of India’s potential medal tally at the Asian Games. It severely reprimands the IOA for its absolute failure to do whatever they could to ensure a fair selection process. Furthermore, the IOA has even failed to send it the requisite number of names to the Asian Games organising committee.

Remember all of this. Remember how the Men’s Handball team was forcibly included in the Asian Games draw courtesy an IOA official who was also an office-bearer of Asian Handball. Remember how the Pencak Silat team was cut down from 22 representations to just 2 to accommodate this. Keep in mind how Volleyball got a free pass for Jakarta despite having neither the numbers nor the rankings to back their claim. At least in the case of Taekwondo, justice seems to have been served.

“This has gone on long enough,” concludes Saurabh. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to say that all’s well that ends well when this is over.”