Manika Batra vs TTFI could be a landmark judgment - Know Why
Regardless of the verdict, Manika Batra has set a unique precedent which a lot many Indian athletes can build upon in the coming years
This is no ordinary player vs. federation dispute. The verdict might take a few months to come but what really stands out is the fearlessness of the player to challenge an Indian sports federation. Sports in India has grown immensely but something that has always lagged behind is adequate and appropriate governance. More often than not, federation governance has been left to bureaucrats and government officers with little to no clue about the technicalities of the sport they are to run. This is just the needle in a haystack full of ethical, moral, legal and regulatory flaws that exist in Indian sport. Manika Batra has attempted to clear this haystack with her brave attempt at challenging a TTFI rule. This might not seem like a big deal to many but in reality, it can go a long way in building the base for stronger individual player rights in India.
The dispute has arisen out of allegations between national coach Soumyadeep Roy and Manika Batra. During the recent Tokyo Olympics, Manika Batra did not have a coach alongside her during all the round matches that she played. It was evident in Round 3 when she lost in straight sets that there had been some issue regarding the matter. Her personal coach, Sanmay Paranjape was in the stands to support her, but national coach Soumyadeep Roy was nowhere to be seen. Incidentally, Roy had been guiding every single player including veteran Sharath Kamal, for all the round matches that they played. It did seem that something was brewing when only Manika Batra did not have the national team coach by her side.
Post the Olympics, the Table Tennis Federation of India(TTFI) asked Batra to submit an explanation behind why she did not take Soumyadeep Roy's help in Tokyo. The reply was a complete shocker to all the parties involved. Manika Batra stated that Soumyadeep Roy had asked her to drop a match during the Olympic qualifier matches held earlier this year. This is then taken to another level when Batra is asked to attend the National Camp in Sonipat ahead of the Asian Championships. She does not reply and is reported to be training on her own. She is then excluded from the squad under a rule that mandates her compulsory attendance in national camps prior to the beginning of a tournament.
Manika Batra moved the Delhi High Court in September to intervene and allow her to be a part of the Asian Championships squad. The petition also included an appeal to look into the arbitrary rule of only selecting players who attend National Camps.
Whether the rule making it compulsory for players to attend national camps in order to be eligible for selection is valid or not?
One of the key contentions that is actually brought out in this regard is the individual rights of Indian athletes. Manika Batra has challenged what she feels is an arbitrary rule that not just goes against her but countless athletes as well. When it comes to individual liberty of players, sports federations in India have been liberal in terms of allowing athletes to train abroad and even have foreign coaches as per their requirements. But this rule is different for all sports. The entire issue that cropped up during the Olympics was one which saw a glaring player-coach tension. Apart from affecting the performance of the player, the entire Indian camp gets caught up in unnecessary drama and politics. It is clear that Manika Batra needed a coach in her crucial match, but questions have to be asked about how her demands were handled during and after the Olympics.
The TTFI show cause notice to Batra might have been a procedural aspect of the entire issue. But what really stands out is how she has been singled out as a culprit in the entire situation. There can be no doubt about the fact that players must not be held up for understanding what their body and mind demands of them. If Batra genuinely felt that Soumyadeep Roy was not someone suitable to coach her, there should not have been any questions asked about her decision to play without a coach. The right of performance is also heavily vested with a player and cannot always be left to the coach and management to make decisions. She was smart enough to realise, but it proved to be a little too much for the management.
Post the Olympics Batra began training on her own prior to the Asian Championships. The mandated rule as per the TTFI is that all players must attend national camps before a major tournament. This is undoubtedly a valid rule in some regard. No player is bigger than a team even in an individual sport like Table Tennis. But as has been correctly pointed out by the petitioner, the individuality of a sport like Table Tennis is important to adhere to. It was stated that ""Table Tennis is an individual sport, which requires specialised training with support staff. Only the personal coach would know the strengths, weaknesses skills and areas which a player should focus and strengthen. However, these Rules do not permit any personal coach / support staff. Therefore, the Rules of 04.08.2021 are arbitrary, irrational, absurd and have no nexus with achieving of excellence in an individualised sport, such as table tennis,". This entire claim holds true and the basis for filing the petition was agreed upon by the Delhi High Court.
What is really needed
Digressing from the entire issue, a fundamental requirement of Indian sport is a specialised Court of Arbitration for Sport. This is the need of the hour and there are no two ways about it when it comes to sport dispute resolution. Athletes in general need minimal time away from their sport and court cases in India are the complete opposite of being time bound. This is not because of those who deliberate on the matter but mainly due to the vested interests of individual parties. A perfect example was that of Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav in 2016. A specialised sport arbitrator will be effectively able to adjudicate upon matters solely due to the fact that he or she will have a greater knowledge and understanding of how to about it. With all due respect, Indian judges have enough on their hands in terms of technically understanding a new and upcoming field such as sport. So effectively handing over adjudication is needed for the best interests of the athletes and Indian sport in general.
The importance of this case
The fundamental point and importance behind this case is that player rights have now come into the picture of sports governance in India. One might contend that Manika Batra has only done this as a means of fighting back against the TTFI. This is true but the ulterior motive is where the grey area lies. Regardless of the intention behind moving the High Court, Batra has done an unmatchable feat which is a landmark moment for Indian sport. Her challenge is a signal to Indian bureaucrats and federations that the attention must always be on the athletes and coaches. No vested interests and incompetence can take away what is rightfully due to India's sportspersons.
It remains to be seen what happens in the coming months but for now, we must revel in this watershed moment in Indian sports. Do follow this matter regardless of which side you may be on. Understand the critique of sporting governance in India while also keeping in mind that sportspersons have waited a long time for such an initiative. Manika Batra has taken the courageous first step and more sportspersons shall follow soon.