Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore made history at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games by winning the rifle double trap silver—India’s first ever individual silver medal at the Olympics. After taking voluntary retirement from the army, the colonel won a Lok Sabha election and is now the Union sports minister. In an Exclusive interview with Qaiser Mohammad Ali, he spoke on a variety of issues. Excerpts:
Are you happy with the way Indian athletes’ preparations went about for the Asian Game?
Preparation is always an ongoing process. You can never say that I wish I a little bit more time. It’s for athletes as well as administrators. But, yes, the sort of preparations that used to happen earlier… we are in a far more advanced stage than that. Wherever they wanted and whatever exposure they wanted – or wanted to train under certain coaches – everything has been provided to them. We have created the right environment for athletes to be in the best form of mental and physical preparedness to compete at the Asian Games. Now, it is far better than it used to happen earlier, but yes there is much more that you would want to do ahead.
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But there have been chinks.
When we function as a collective body there are different responsibilities given to different organisations. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has the responsibility of catering to the funding of our athletes; we are doing that to the best of our ability. The planning of our preparation and the actual execution of that is left with the federations. The selection of teams for inter-continental games is left to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), so we must respect the responsibilities given and then try and help each other beyond that. So, whatever the names [of athletes] have come, you have to see the difference. In the Commonwealth Games there is a limit to the number of athletes that can be there in the Games Village and there is a minimum qualifying standard. At the Asian Games, those limits are not there; the limits are much more liberal. So, you would realise that number of athletes was far below 10,000 but at the Asian Games it is 17,000. At the Olympic Games, there is a limit on the number of athletes.
IOA did a lot of chopping and changing from the first list released on July 3. Then, on July 23, another release was issued. The total number of athletes was only slightly different, but some games like handball came in, 19 players of pencak slat were dropped, one more sports was brought in and one was excluded. So this uncertainty was surely there last month [July].
We work in consultation with a lot of stakeholders and we have to depend on experts and stakeholders. And there it is in the ambit of functioning of the IOA that for the inter-continental Games they decided, having more detailed knowledge of the Games and the conduct of the Games because they are part of the Games federation [Olympic Council of Asia]. We depend on them to decide and let us know because we are the eventual funders.
In your sport, shooting, there was some concern about ammunition, whether it would be available in Indonesia or not. And there is also a limit on carrying ammunition out of India – the general rule for the country. Importantly, some of the shooters from the Asian Games are going straight to Korea for the World Cup, in which quota places for the 2020 Olympic are on offer. Has this ammunition issue been resolved?
This query is not limited to our country or [a few] countries. It is a regulation of international airlines; they permit 5kg ammunition. However, this is not new; this has been in existence for decades. And, therefore, solutions are already in place. So, this is not an issue at all. The ammunitions are all there, in Indonesia, the companies provide ammunition directly to Indonesia, the place of the event. The ammunition is also shipped by different methods there. The ammunition that is required by the athletes, that specific brand, is made available there in sufficient quantities. As well, athlete are used to travelling from one event to another event. So, that is also a non-issue.
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When the National Sports Federations (NSFs) were selecting athletes and the IOA was overseeing that, were there specific instructions from the sports ministry something to the effect that only those who stand a chance of winning medals or coming close to winning should be selected?
Like I mentioned earlier, the responsibility lies with the IOA for the continental games and the federations for all other sports events. The ministry does not get involved with the selection process. We are the funders. A very general guideline is there, existing from the days when I was competing [2000s], and it is the same guideline which says that for the inter-continental games -- if a person in the previous edition was No.6 in individual events and a team was at No.8 qualifies. So, when you send teams, number one, there is a restriction on the number of players representing a country, and therefore the teams that qualify or are better suited to perform there get an opportunity to go. Number two, the team represents a large majority of proud Indians and, therefore, we would want that the teams are fully prepared before they get an opportunity to compete at the apex level. This is not a small level of competition wherein you are gaining experience. So, there a very general guideline existing for decades. We gave them a more liberal guideline, giving them flexibility and saying that irrespective of whether or not the person has participated in the previous edition, if you feel the teams or individuals have an opportunity to be amongst the best, please select them. [IOA rejected this request from the sports ministry.]
What is the assessment of the sports ministry about the number of medals India would win? In 2014 Asian Games, India finished eighth with 11 gold. Is there a chance of improving this time?
Such a comparison is fair in case you have the other yardstick permanent, which is the number of events and the type of events are the same in every Asian Games. But they are not. It is up to the host nation to remove a lot of events and add a lot of events and, therefore, the other yardstick is continuously changing. So, to compare two Asian Games is incorrect. However, it is our effort to never say that the ground is uneven to play. It’s our effort to go out there and compete to the best of our ability. What is inspirational is the stories that emerge when you have challenges in front of you and you overcome those challenges. That’s inspiration. We’ll continue to aspire for more and more.
But any assessment that the ministry has done, like it was done for the 2016 Olympics and put on the website, even if you don’t tell me?
Yes, we have done. Of course, we have experts who are watching our athletes and comparing them to the other athletes. The sports ministry and the SAI have set up a very professional body of professionals who are now assessing the competition as well. So, we have a fair idea of where we are.
Eight archery and shooting events in which India won medals at the 2014 Asian Games have been dropped. What impact would it make on India’s final medal tally?
Like I said, it is the prerogative of the host nation. We should not fight rules.
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But does India have a say in that [addition and exclusion of sports]?
Of course, when Olympic associations of various countries come together they put their points of view across. I am sure our federations would have insisted on keeping a certain number of events and games. But whatever comes in front of us, we will give out best.
One agrees that an Asian Games host can add sports with the OCA’s permission. This time, Indonesia has added lots of martial arts events, seven in all, in which 92 gold medals are at stake. And India is not every very strong in martial arts. There’s a thinking in Indian sports fraternity that even if India wins more than 11 gold [2014 tally] in Jakarta, it might still slip down the medal tally.
Like I said earlier, the parameters of comparison are not the same every time, so comparison itself becomes unfair. However, I’d like to tell you that we are now creating an environment where Indian martial arts are lifted to greater heights. We are trying to fund and create events where there is a development of first an ownership and a sense of pride for our martial arts events, be it from Kerala or Punjab or Maharashtra. And we are also trying to fund them.
What is the status of Top of the Podium Scheme (TOPS)? Will it be merged with another scheme or remain independent? Funds under TOPS were released just a few days ago. The requirement for those funds might have come late.
This recommendation came from the Olympic Task Force that we must treat the elite athletes separately to be able to cater to their requirements in a very professional manner and in least amount of time. So, TOPS will continue and gradually it’s becoming very, very professional. I’d like to tell you that the gap between the CWG and the Asian Games was a couple of months.
It is always there every time ...
So, athletes that came from the CWG were funded and we continued their funding or gotten fresh funds after the CWG. So, this point [release of funds] of ‘a few days before’ [Asian Games] or ‘later’ does not arise because we have removed the red tape for the elite athletes and we are catering to their requirements in a very professional manner.
Coming to coaches and their salaries, there is disenchantment among them that they are paid less than foreign coaches. Will a time come when Indian coaches get paid at par with foreign coaches?
At a SAI Governing Body meeting three weeks ago there was a proposal of looking at the fee structure for Indian support staff, including coaches, masseurs, phyios and doctors -- for national academies, not the Indian teams – and we enhanced it 100 per cent. There was a limit of Rs 100,000 [per month] for a coach. Why should our coaches be limited to Rs.100,000? We enhanced it 100 per cent. Masseurs were limited Rs.20,000. You don’t get a knowledgeable masseur for this amount. We enhanced 100 per cent in all those categories, and gave liberty to SAI Director General to take a call on individual cases and increase it further by 50 per cent. We are very clear: the salaries will be based on merit. And we’ll also develop Indian coaches when it comes to taking advantage of foreign coaches. We’ve put it in the policy that whenever we hire a foreign coach, he will be duty bound to train a minimum of two Indian coaches all the time, and we are ensuring it. We are taking a holistic view.
Since we are on SAI GB meet, let me tell you that daily food allowance for national academy athletes was Rs.225 per day. We enhanced it to Rs.450/day and further ordered a committee of experts to sit [and advice] if it has to be enhanced further we’ll do it. For this the overall expenditure will increase to about Rs.65 crore/year. The money to be spent on food of Indian team athletes is Rs.690/day during camps/training in India. The same athlete is also given Rs.750/day as food supplement.
A lot of athletes recently moved courts seeking redressal because they felt they were omitted from the Asian Games teams unfairly. Do you think there should be a sports tribunal to resolve such issues to avoid athletes and coaches going to courts?
It’s a little too early for me to comment on it directly. But we are thinking on improving the sports environment and system. This issue is part of that. We will address it soon.
When is the National Sports Code going to come into effect?
The 2011 Sports Code is already in place.
There’s a case in Delhi High Court regarding the Sports Code and the sports ministry has requested the court to give the draft of the code back. Is it going to be amended?
Our concern is – and it’s a collective, mutual concern of the sports federations, the IOA, the sports ministry, and a large number of sports fans – that we create an environment where sports is nurtured and sportsperson get the right opportunity to excel and India’s name is projected in the world through sports. Therefore, we’ll create that mechanism.
Quite often people go to courts, again seeking redressal, when elections to federations take place. Do you think an election commission for sports would be a good idea?
Again, we already have mechanisms in place for [holding] fair elations. However, this is a continuous process, like athletes’ preparations. Similarly, bringing in transparency and better efficiency in sports bodies is also a continuous affair and we’ll continue to work on making sports cleaner and sportspersons getting better opportunities. All of us are part of it.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print