Olympics Begin In
Begin typing your search above and press return to search.


Under lockdown, athletes should reflect on how sport is governed

Under lockdown, athletes should reflect on how sport is governed

Shreyas Rao

Published: 5 May 2020 12:30 PM GMT

The coronavirus pandemic has brought sports events to a screeching halt and athletes have been compelled to make a drastic shift from their routines. They have had to try new methods to keep themselves fit, occupied and motivated, and many are found engaging their well-wishers through digital platforms. Beyond these individual efforts, however, this is a good time for athletes to think about the role of sports governance and the impact that it will continue to have on their careers.

Governance practices in administrative bodies form the base of a sport eco-system. On one hand, governance that is accountable to all stakeholders has a positive impact on the way sport is organised and empowers athletes with the ideal environment to maximise their potential. On the other hand, malpractices have a negative impact on the public image of the sport and destabilise one’s sincere pursuit of success.

The bell has been tolling for reform in governance of Indian sports bodies for a while. Despite pressure from the courts and the central government, most federations and associations have resisted changes and have hid behind the beneath the veil of their supposed autonomy to remain unaccountable to athletes, fans and the public. Though the National Sports Development Bill, 2013 and the Sports Code for Governance in Sports, 2017 have been drafted to bring transparency through robust changes, they have remained in limbo for years.

While the pitfalls are many, something that affects athletes the most is the absence of any platform to address grievances which, in turn, promotes uncertainty and ad-hocism. The need for an effective and independent first level of dispute resolution mechanism for athletes has been clearly laid out in the document titled Ten Reforms Indian Sports Administration Needs brought out by the The Sports Law & Policy Centre. When such a mechanism is missing, athletes are often left in the lurch which further leads to several, often over-looked, issues:

Long-term Planning

The highest level of international competitions warrants a great deal of planning to achieve the best possible performance. With the advancement of sports science, concepts like periodisation help to plan training routines in great detail such that they peak physically and mentally at the biggest events1. If decisions taken are arbitrary in nature, especially with regard to selection and participation in competitions, it offers low clarity about the future, thus preventing athletes from planning long term (example of the series of mishaps prior to the Asian Games 2018). Even those competing at the elite level end up having to take it one event at a time as opposed to their competitors who plan their training routines based on the “Olympic cycle”.

Competition anxiety

Ideally, elite athletes need to be clear about their post-competition routines and plans before they participate in major competitions. But if one is compelled to plan short-term and if one’s identity or future participation depends solely on the current performance, it makes one vulnerable to state anxiety. Furthermore, this often puts one at risk of an injury due to high muscular tension prevalent in an anxious state2. While claims of mental weakness are made rather easily by the public and the media, it is important to acknowledge the negative impact that erratic decision-making can have on one’s state of mind over time.

Match-day routine

Most successful elite athletes follow a specific match-day routine during competitions that enables them to maximise their potential on the day of the event3. However, when domestic competitions at the state or the national level are organized in a haphazard manner, it hampers the opportunity for an individual/team to develop and practice such a routine. Rather than focusing on aspects such as diet, sleep cycle and self-talk, they end up having to navigate through a series of unforeseen or unexpected circumstances (example of poor arrangements at 2019 National Cycling Championships at Jaipur). Over a period of time, this prevents one from forming any fixed routine which has a small yet significant effect on their prospects in international competitions.

Financial challenges

A sporting career is dependent on the availability and management of financial resources. Even though the avenues to raise money may be available, athletes are often left confused about the optimum use of resources at a particular time due to lack of clarity on future participation. Moreover, there is a disparity in the monetary compensation offered by state governments for international performance which skews the perspective that one has about sporting success. On one hand, it encourages malpractices as individuals/teams look to win at all costs considering the high stakes involved. On the other hand, there is a feeling of unfairness since the same amount of effort and achievement is variably compensated.

Travel related hurdles

Timely procurement of Visas and smooth travel arrangements are critical for participation in international competitions, something that federations need to take complete responsibility for. However, if the onus is completely on the athlete, it causes stress during a period of time which has to be ideally spent on planning the details of performance. Often, one is at the mercy of the intervention by the government (example of table tennis players stranded at the airport on their way to 2019 ITTF World Tour Australian Open). Furthermore, uncoordinated travel increases the chances of jet lag and reduces the scope for acclimatisation, which eventually has an impact on performance4.

Dealing with ethical issues

An environment that is free from discrimination is necessary for healthy participation in sport. This depends on the protocols put in place by sporting bodies to address ethical issues in a systematic and timely manner. But lack of such mechanisms puts athletes at risk of a range of issues such as age fraud, doping, competition manipulation, unjust selection policies and harassment. When affected, they mostly find themselves isolated, unaware and unprepared to deal with them, often having to bear significant costs to knock the doors of the courts (example of P U Chitra who had to file a writ petition in Kerala High Court after being excluded from India's squad for the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships). Moreover, such a system encourages opportunities for established athletes to use their influence to maneuver circumstances in their favour.

Career Progression

Sports bodies are responsible for the overall welfare of the athletes and have to provide a pathway, not only for their sporting aspirations but also for them to transition to alternate careers. But inefficient governance minimises the prospect of a sustainable professional career. Some just give up their pursuit due to the lack of a clear road-map. Some get exhausted by expending mindless efforts to navigate administrative hurdles and the “politics” involved. Some are wrongfully excluded or are subject to some form of discrimination which they find hard to address. Moreover, even those with a reasonable amount of success in the international level struggle to build a life beyond sport.

Neglect at the Grassroots

It is a recognised fact that creating world class athletes solely depends on ensuring world class competition at the lower levels of sport that actually creates the talent pool. While the government, media and CSR initiatives support athletes once they have reached a certain stage, the onus of building the grassroots culture through mass introduction into a sport is mainly on the respective federation. If they are apathetic about the same, it significantly reduces the pool while also having an adverse impact on talented junior athletes from vulnerable backgrounds at the junior level. Many careers, like the one of Thulasi Helen, perish even before they take off.

Acknowledging these issues can be important. Firstly, it puts sporting success into context – while “succeeding despite the system” has become a popular cliché, it enables us to become more aware of the actual struggles faced. Secondly, and most importantly, it prompts the eco-system to create platforms where athletes’ voices are heard, their views understood and their participation in policy making is enabled.

To be fair, the persistent media coverage and certain high-profile judgements from the honourable courts have ensured a push towards the better. Many federations have made sincere efforts to professionalize and the governments have been making pro-active efforts to create better opportunities. Athletes are not submissive as before and are able to garner public support for their issues through social media. Athletes, and other stakeholders in sport, should therefore use this break to dwell on how they can go beyond their individual challenges and aspirations to come together for the cause of holistic governance reforms. This way, sport can emerge out of the pandemic in a much better state and re-establish its importance in life and society.


1 Rowbottom, D. G. (2000). Periodization of Training. In W. E. Garrett Jr., & D. T. Kirkendall, Exercise and Sports Science (p. 500). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

2 Sainsbury, P., & Gibson, J. G. (1954). Symptoms of Anxiety and Tension and the Accompanying Physiological Changes in the Muscular System . Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 216.

3 Taylor, J. (2012, July 16). Sports: Why the World's Best Athletes Use Routines. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201207/sports-why-the-worlds-best-athletes-use-routines

4 Lee, A., & Galvez, J. C. (2012). Jet Lag in Athletes. Sports Health, 211-216.

Next Story