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Companies need to come forward and help athletes: Ajay Maken

Interview with Sports Minister

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On the eve of the London Olympic Games, speaks to Kavita Chowdhury on the controversies in the run-up to the event and his attempts at injecting professionalism into the system

The Olympic Games kick off in London next week. How well equipped is the Indian contingent this time around?
One of my first priorities as the sports minister — when I took over in January last year — was to start preparations for the Olympics. The event then was only 18 months away. After what had happened during the Commonwealth Games (CWG), there was a kind of inertia within the ministry. So, we initiated ‘Operation Excellence, London 2012’. We identified 16 disciplines and 732 athletes (both boys and girls) as well as deployed 121 coaches and earmarked Rs 260 crore for this alone. We had never done anything similar on such a large scale. Half of the amount allotted was spent on giving our athletes the much-needed foreign exposure.

For the first time, as many as 81 athletes have qualified for the games. This is the highest number of Indian sportsmen qualifying for the games ever. Last time, the number of qualifying players was 56.

As the sports minister, you have strongly opposed former Organising Committee Chairman from attending the Olympics.
He (Kalmadi) is still the president of the Indian Olympics Association. I felt for a person who has been chargesheeted and has not received a clean chit yet, to represent India would be a matter of shame for the country. As a sports minister, I felt strongly about it.

You are credited for changing the image of the sports ministry. But, you have had little exposure to sports earlier. Instead of sweeping the controversial issues that crop up in the sports ministry everyday under the carpet, you tackle these head-on.
When I joined the ministry after the CWG was over, the first file that came to me was from the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation. The letter was dated December 8, 2010. It was to remove Kalmadi as chairman of the Organising Committee. I took over the ministry on January 20, 2011 and within two days, I had given my assent. The sports ministry stood firm and sent across a message that anyone found guilty will not be spared.

The second step was to bring greater transparency into the functioning of the sports federations — leading to the Sports Bill. Besides, the CWG stadia and facilities were practically unutilised at that time, as proper legacy had not been planned. We initiated the ‘come and play’ scheme, under which 12,000 students from Delhi have utilised the stadia. This number will go up to 18,000 this year.

One of your key decisions was to take on powerful sports lobbies and associations through the National Sports Development Bill. But the Bill was turned down by the Cabinet. Do you think it will ever see the light of day?
We have drafted and redrafted the Bill. The purpose is to remove any sort of control of vested interests within organisations, or control by the government. At present, all sporting federations apply to the government to gain recognition. But we want that any organisation which fulfils certain guidelines should be deemed to be recognised.

We have also proposed that 25 per cent members of executive bodies should be players who are elected. Age and tenure stipulations have also been recommended. Besides, every sports federation should be brought under the Right to Information Act. We want efficiency, which is only possible by bringing absolute transparency into the system.

Do you find yourself without a political backing within the Congress and the government. Most sports organisations such as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have political interests... ministers like and Farooque Abdullah?
No, certainly not. Without the support of the government, I couldn’t have gone so far. No one has asked me to stop. We got support from every Member of Parliament in the Parliamentary consultative committee. As for the BCCI, I am trying to convince its members and those whose opinions matter. But, it’s not only about these Cabinet ministers; leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley has also taken interest. But we feel we have assuaged their concerns.

Do you feel there should be more or less role of the government in sports.
There should be no role of the government in sports. We want the sports federations to put up all information on their websites, and the tribunal should play the role of the regulator. A committee headed by the Chief Justice should appoint the three-member tribunal. We want the government to move away from granting recognition. This is what the attempts to do, but the does not seem to realise this.

In the recent ‘Lee-Hesh’ (Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi) controversy, you initially stepped in, but then left it on the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to resolve the matter. Why?
The sports ministry wrote to the AITA on concerns expressed by the two qualified players. When AITA explained the whole issue to us, we left to the tennis body to take a decision. We don’t interfere in selection of teams.

One of the perennial problems faced by sportsmen in this country is lack of resources.
I don’t think our 732 athletes selected for the Olympic Games face a dearth of resources. What we need is a better talent pool and, therefore, in terms of fitness, our mindset needs to change. And, apart from this, the government and the public sector units (PSUs) pump in 98 per cent of the money in the sports sector. What about the corporates — they seem to be only interested in procuring the telecast rights of cricket.

Companies — instead of just rewarding athletes or giving them endorsements after they achieve success — should help sports overall. They should help in building the necessary infrastructure and help athletes. Apart from China and Cuba where the sector is completely financed by the government, the US government doesn’t spend anything. Only the companies help in the finances. We are a mixed economy. But the sportsmen are employed by and railways only; where are our companies?

At one time, you were seen as a successor to Sheila Dikshit as Delhi chief minister. Will you still want it to hold true?
(Smiles) I still have age on my side. Dikshit became the chief minister when she was 62. I’m still 48. I’m enjoying my work. I am happy I could make a difference to sports. In my 14-year stint in politics, I have gained varied experience, handling different portfolios at the state and the Centre levels. I am the youngest in the Congress to be given an Independent charge as minister.

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