The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwalla has always felt strongly about age fraud. The former Olympic sprinter spoke to Outlook about the measures the AFI is taking to bring under some control a dishonorable practice that rewards cheats and denies the deserving.
What are some of the measures the AFI is taking to check age fraud?
All athletes have to register with a UID (Unique Identification Number) and relevant documents, such as birth certificates. All entries are online. If it is still felt that the athlete’s age is not genuine, he or she is sent for a medical test.
We also have biometric (fingerprint) testing. This is especially effective in cases of impersonation, where, say, someone named Anil Kumar Singh runs for his namesake for some ulterior motive. Now we have a barcode on each chest number. And whoever is proved to be overage has to start competing in a higher age group.
But people still find a way to forge documents. Are steps being taken which make it harder to manipulate the system?
If someone wants to break into the best bank in the world, he will. No one can stop him. No one can stop people from cheating. I once went to a school where 80 per cent of the class had a birth date of April 1. So there is a lot of manipulation, and for various reasons. But there is a good chance the guy who is robbing the bank is going to get caught.
I’m the chair of the World Athletics age manipulation committee, and this happens worldwide, especially in developing nations. We’re doing what we can. We’re likely to have a whistle-blower scheme, where someone who brings a case to our attention is rewarded. You can never stop certain things, but you can reduce them.
Isn’t there often a nexus between officials and coaches that allows fraud to carry on?
Officials, not too much. Basically, it’s the coaches and the parents [who are the culprits in age fraud]. And it tends to happen at the lower levels. District coaches do it because they want to show their ward has done well, so that they can continue to live in that place and avoid a transfer. Someone else may do it for a job. It’s all inter-connected, so we have to fight it, just the way we fight doping.
SAI being a government body has a certain clout. Would you work with them on the age issue?
We have our own system of fighting age fraud. The media also has to be responsible in their reporting. It operates at extremes – either lavish in praise or extremely negative. For example, a few years ago, Nisar Ahmad was built up as the ‘Indian Usain Bolt’. Turned out he had manipulated his age.
Is there a sense that progress is being made towards curbing age fraud?
We are making huge progress in athletics. We are seeing some light [at the end of the tunnel], with all the different steps we are taking. Age fraud will definitely reduce, we are confident of that.