Commonwealth Games Fiasco and the Dark Side of Sport (with Update)

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2010

This poor cat is probably working on his eighth life.
This poor cat is probably working on his eighth life.

At its most basic level, sport is a physical battle of athlete against athlete; team versus team.

Sadly, some individuals resort to unscrupulous methods to gain an unfair advantage.

Sport, at the corporate level, is no less competitive. However in this arena, results come through business acumen and politics—not physical performance.

Regrettably, unsavory tactics in order to achieve advantage are often employed in the board room as well.

And all too often—in both cases—when cheaters cheat, the innocent athlete who plays by the rules comes up short.

The recent bidding wars between four finalists vying for the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympics only cemented in our minds the prevalence of dirty politics, bribery and coercion at the highest levels.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games are scheduled to run October 3 through 14 in Delhi, India. The Games are a quadrennial multi-sport affair, akin in format to the Summer Olympics and the Asian Games. They are comprised of the nations of the old British Commonwealth.

From the day the Games were awarded to India in 2003, suspicion of monetary favors in exchange for votes has tainted the Delhi Games.

And so it is no wonder that from the seeds of that suspicion we now see the ripened fruit of corruption and back-room dealings which have tarnished the image of India and these games. 

Further crushing the pride of an Indian nation which is eager to impress a worldwide audience are claims of missed construction deadlines, shoddy workmanship and security (terrorism) concerns.

And once again, it is the athlete who draws the short stick. Entire nations have essentially boycotted the games while some elite stars have personally decided to stay home. Others, hoping to compete against the best, will dutifully settle for lesser competition.

At the forefront of all the controversy is the die-hard politician and Organizing Committee chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, who somehow survived a recent purging within his own committee. (Update: April 25, 2011—Kalmadi arrested on corruption charges).

Kalmadi has remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation,

"I am still the boss...I have to deliver the Games, and I am doing that. That is my most important responsibility. After that there is the inquiry and let us then see who has done what. Let us see."

Then, in a moment of poetic reflection,

"When we bid there is euphoria. There is disenchantment when the reality sets in. Then there is search for the guilty. It is the pattern for every Games. Then there is persecution of the innocent and finally there is successful Games and glorification of the uninvolved. This is the pattern everywhere."

Yet as the torch is passed from city to city, the pressure to out-perform the previous host only seems to increase the disconnect between the extravaganza and the athlete. The competition in high places can become more important than the competition on the field.

In the quest to sell tickets and increase exposure, the central figure of any global sporting event - the athlete - becomes no more than a few poker chips tossed about in the smoke-filled back room.

In this sense, the athlete loses again.

It should be no surprise then, that many athlete's rights groups are springing up internationally simply as a matter of self protection.

In an attempt to gain the perspective of an Indian citizen with an athletic background, I was able to interview former international heptathlete and national hero, Ms Reeth Abraham. Abraham is a founding member of Clean Sports India and is an avid running enthusiast. What follows is a portion of that interview.

BR - Have you participated in the Commonwealth Games?

Abraham - No, I was on the team but the team was not sent. Our country boycotted (Edinburgh, 1986)

BR - Do the Games in Delhi stir up a sense of rivalry with China and her Beijing Olympics?

Abraham - Not really. We would have been happy if we could match up to their standards.

BR - Do you see the Commonwealth Games as a test for a future Olympic Games bid by India?

Abraham - No way! We're not capable with the current set up. Maybe, (in the future) if people like us (athlete advocates) are given a chance.

BR - There is a perception in the West that construction is behind schedule. Is this accurate?

Abraham - Yes it is. And it is still a big mess.

BR - The Commonwealth Games are one of the most high profile global competitions, yet several elite athletes and national teams have opted out. Your thoughts?

Abraham - They say that it is because of the off season. But now I think they are making excuses because of all the controversies.

BR - Is there interest among the general public, apart from athletes and sports fans, in the upcoming Games?

Abraham - There was very little interest from the public. Now that too is very negative. I hear people from Delhi are actually going out of town to get away from the mess.

BR - Is Kalmadi an elected official, apart from his oversight of the Games?

Abraham - He is basically a politician who has made his name by bribing the sports associations to elect him.

BR - What are his chances of re-election?

Abraham - Our system is so corrupt, one can never say what's in store.

BR - Reeth, you have been outspoken at times about the political nature of India's sports governing bodies. How has politics affected the Delhi Games?

Abraham - After the (corruption) scam has come into light, there has been an awakening, i.e. both the ruling party and the opposition. Whereas, people like us (athlete advocates) already knew about these scoundrels. The day it was announced that Kalmadi would be heading the show, I knew this would be the outcome. (see update above)

BR - Are the (Indian) athletes fairly represented by the governing entities?

Abraham - Not at all.

BR - After the Games, will it have been worth the cost?

Abraham - Not at all.

BR - What would it take to redeem the Games after such a controversial run-up?

Abraham - I think its too late to redeem the Games. I hope and pray that the Games are conducted well.

BR - What is the weather like in Delhi in October?

Abraham - About 25-30 (77-86), pleasant, but it rains sometimes.

It is evident from this interview that all is not well in Delhi. I hope, for the sake of the athletes, that Kalmadi's words and Abraham's hopes come true - that the Games are successful.

In the United States, a very important position now lies vacant (CEO of the USATF, America's track and field governing body). Let us hope the decision-makers weigh heavily the value and importance of the athlete when making their choice.

 

About Reeth Abraham:

Reeth is the mother of two who lives in Bangalore, India, where she is still active as a running enthusiast. One of India's most decorated athletes, Abraham specialized in the heptathlon, 100m hurdles and long jump. She is a former multiple national record holder. She is a two-time member of India's delegation to the Asian Games and holds three gold and one silver medal in international competition.

At national championship level, she has won 16 gold and 11 silver medals. Her career spanned over 15 years, 1976-1992. In 1997, she was awarded India's highest sports recognition, the coveted Arjuna Award. Reeth is a founding member of Clean Sports India, a group (mostly former athletes) who advocate for drug-free performance, athlete's rights and reform at all levels of sport.

Kalmadi quotes: The Times of India