Time to sack AFI autocrats

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has not covered itself in glory by defaming and maligning marathoner O.P. Jaisha. The federation’s response, that she and her coach denied water or refreshments during her marathon run at the Rio Olympics, seems flimsy prima facie. A person running 42 km in 42 centigrade temperature and not accepting personalized drinks—somehow it doesn’t just add up.

The AFI’s arguments are actually excuses, and lame ones at that. Do you ask marathoners if they need personalized drinks? Isn’t it obvious that they would need some refreshments? And even if Jaisha and her coach had refused the drinks for whatever reasons—e.g., language and naivete—wasn’t it the duty of the AFI to provide them water nonetheless? Would cricket authorities allow a batsman to play without safety gear if he expressed the desire to do that? What were the AFI’s 16 officials expected to do in Rio anyway? Assist sportspersons? Or enjoy the joie de vivre the city is famous for?

It is clear as day that the AFI failed miserably in its duty; its failure could have actually cost Jaisha her life. And now it is insinuating that the Kerala athlete is playing some dirty game or perhaps aiming at cheap publicity. “We fail to comprehend why Ms Jaisha, who has been nurtured and trained with relentless dedication by the foreign expert and the AFI for years, chose to state incorrect information in her interview to a section of the media,” it said in a statement.

Notice the condescending attitude: ‘We did so much for you, and you are peddling lies against us.’ What remained unsaid but was very much evident from the statement was: ‘Thou shalt not tell on us.’ Evidently, the AFI bosses are intimidating her.

The AFI seems to have succeeded in convincing (coercing?) another marathoner, Kavita Raut, to toe its line. She said, “AFI provided all facilities, have no complaint against them. I can only speak for myself, I was offered energy drinks, etc., by the officials before the marathon but I had refused. O.P. Jaisha and her coach didn’t join the Assemblies so maybe that’s why they didn’t know about keeping a personal water bottle [at the designated station].”

It is quite clear that the AFI has decided to go on the offensive. So, secretary C.K. Valson accused Jaisha of not just bad performance at Rio but also of duplicity: “She underperformed in the marathon, maybe that’s why she has thrown this blame.”

In other words, everybody is wrong—sportspersons, coaches, maybe also the Rio organizers—but not India’s sports organizations and the self-serving officials running them. It needs to be mentioned that former Indian Olympic Association secretary general Lalit Bhanot, who is facing charges related to the Commonwealth Games Scam, was recommended in June 2015 by the AFI for election to the post of vice-president of the Asian Athletics Association. Bhanot, who was associated with the AFI for a decade, was duly elected to the post. Such are the antecedents of the AFI.

And it is hurling vile charges at the athlete who risked her life to ensure that the image of her nation doesn’t get sullied: she kept running till she finished the race, despite the severest strain her body felt. Till date, she has not recovered from that day’s ordeal.

Instead of commending her for her heroic exertion, the federation is trying to demean and humiliate her.

The Sports Ministry has set up a two-member committee to probe the allegations made by Jaisha. The panel comprises Joint Secretary (Sports) Onkar Kedia and Director (Sports) Vivek Narayan.

This is a typical sarkari trick to defuse a crisis. Since it is obvious that the AFI bosses have failed Jaisha, a failure that could have had dire consequences for her, the proper response should be the dismissal of the entire federation and, if the need be, legal action against them. They have made it clear that they would not resign out of shame or remorse, for they are shameless and insolent.

Tough action against them will also help Sports Minister Vijay Goel, facing flak and ridicule for his selfie adventures, redeem himself.