NEW DELHI -- India elected an official facing corruption charges as head of its Olympics association Wednesday in defiance of the International Olympic Committee, which had suspended India’s membership in the global sports body a day earlier for insider dealings, opaque procedures and questionable election practices.
The Olympic slapdown has left egg on India’s face critics said, in a country where sports federations are frequently run by aging bureaucrats rather than sports professionals and merit often takes a back seat. Athletes will be the ultimate losers, they added.
“This is one of the worst moments in Indian sports, but it’s a fair decision that India brought on itself,” said Boria Majumdar, a sports historian and author of a book on India’s flawed 2010 Commonwealth Games. “It’s a shocker. But you could also see it coming.”
Former political aide Lalit Bhanot was elected unopposed as secretary-general of the Indian Olympic Assn. after spending 11 months in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges related to the Commonwealth Games. He has been out on bail since January and maintains that investigators in the pending case are trying to frame him.
Countries competing in the Olympics have their own national associations overseen by the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee, or IOC, which organizes winter and summer games every four years. Indian Olympic Assn. members have told the IOC that India as a democracy will follow its own election rules, not those mandated by Switzerland. India has failed to follow the Olympic Charter, the IOC countered, adding that it will consider the election null and void.
Under the terms of the suspension, announced Tuesday in Switzerland, Indian athletes won’t be allowed to participate in any competition under Olympics jurisdiction, international committee funding for Indian athletic programs will end and Indian sports officials won’t be allowed to attend international meetings.
“Attending foreign meetings, that’s what the officials really like, foreign shopping jaunts, especially in summer,” said Novy Kapadia, a sports commentator. “The system has become like a vested interest mafia.”
Despite a population of 1.2 billion people, India has fared poorly in international sports events. The nation has won just one individual Olympic gold medal in 112 years of participating in the Games, for shooting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While some of this may be cultural, analysts say the nation has great potential talent and the real problem is bureaucracy and infrastructure.
The humiliating Olympic suspension follows India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in which a pedestrian bridge collapsed, suppliers went unpaid, human excrement was left in athletes’ quarters and the budget ballooned to $8 billion from $75 million, much of it unaccounted for. Local newspapers, citing internal documents, detailed $80 rolls of toilet paper, $61 soap dispensers that normally cost $1.97 and $250,000 high-altitude simulators that usually sell for $11,830.
The IOC expressed particular concern over government interference in Bhanot’s election. “The election process has been tarnished since the beginning,” Pere Miro, in charge of relations with national Olympic committees, said Tuesday in Switzerland.
Bhanot, known as a strong planner and organizer, was accused after the Commonwealth Games of favoring a Swiss firm in a timing contract, allegedly leading to a taxpayer loss of over $18 million. He has spent much of his career working for Suresh Kalmadi, a powerful former lawmaker and railway minister who headed the Commonwealth Games and is also facing corruption charges.
Critics say India’s sports federations are too often concerned more with perks than developing athletes.
“The federation system has become totally managed by self-serving politicians and bureaucrats, as a way to stay in the public eye after they’re out of office,” said Kapadia. “That’s why, despite our massive populations, we’re way behind other countries with massive populations like China and Russia.”
In an extreme example, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, 80, was reelected president of the Archery Assn. of India last month for a record 40th successive year. He is the outgoing acting president of the Indian Olympic Assn.
“We did not do anything wrong by going ahead with the election process,” Malhotra said of the Olympic association balloting. “In spite of this the IOC decided to suspend us, but we will try our level best to get the suspension revoked as soon as possible.”
Also elected unopposed Wednesday to replace Malhotra as president of the Indian Olympic Assn. was another close Kalmadi associate, state lawmaker Abhay Chautala. Chautala is chairman of the Indian Boxing Federation despite having virtually no sports experience. He has had a “disproportionate assets” case pending since 2010 after $25 million was allegedly found in various accounts not easily explained by his known income.
“Some say this is an opportunity to cleanse Indian sports,” said Majumdar, the sports historian. “I don’t see it. I just see more and more politicking ahead. And it’s the athletes who will suffer .… Indian sports has shamed itself in front of the world.”
Tanvi Sharma in the Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.