Athletes too banked on heavyweights in their fight against respective federations. (Source: File Photo)
Senior advocates of the Supreme Court and High Courts and some of the leading lawyers have spend a good part of the past two months dealing with pleas of athletes in court over selection snubs for the 2018 Asian Games.
In the lead-up to the Jakarta-Palembang games, chief justices and senior judges have had to conduct back-to-back hearings after aggrieved sportspersons knocked on their doors. Multiple cases — 10 at last count — relating to athletics (1), equestrian (2), handball (1), taekwondo (1), badminton (2), sailing (2) and dragon boat race (1) have been settled in court, an unprecedented number, lawyers say. With most of these falling under the category of ‘urgent mentioning’, lawyers at times had less than half a day to study the nitty-gritties of the selection policies of sports federations. Frantic calls were made to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) – the apex body of sports federations in the country – for last-minute fact checks and to procure documents and midnight oil was burnt to prepare for a hearing.
The sports ministry fell back on the legal acumen of additional solicitor generals to wade through the legal labyrinth in courts across the country – from Delhi to Lucknow to Kochi.
Athletes too banked on heavyweights in their fight against respective federations. Senior Supreme Court advocate Shyam Divan had represented petitioners who challenged the constitutionality of the Aadhaar Act. He took up the cause of two women 400m runners. They had met the selection criteria but had been excluded from the relay squad by the Athletics Federation of India because they were not part of the national camp.
Even the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court was ready to work extra hours. Realising that there was no time to lose with the Games around the corner, Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy extended court timings when doubles specialist Aparna Balan challenged the inclusion of national coach Pullela Gopichand’s daughter in the squad announced by the Badminton Association of India (BAI).
Nalin Kohli, advocate of the Supreme Court, argued for two hours at the Kerala High Court during the final hearing when he represented the BAI. “On the first day the arguments lasted 30 minutes and the final arguments took two hours,” says Kohli. “Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice Jayashankaran Nambiar took the initiative. They said that this is the national squad so it is not good for players if the case drags on. They stayed till 6.45 pm, well beyond two hours after courts usually close, to hear the final arguments and close the case,” Kohli, who is also the additional advocate general (Rajasthan), says. “Courts have gone the extra mile so that the cases are resolved in a speedy manner and preparation of the team does not get hampered because of pendency,” Kohli adds.
Balan’s petition was dismissed.
The most protracted hearing was perhaps the selection of the women’s sailing team for the 49er FX category. “There were at least 10 hearings in the sailing case,” Hemant Phalpher, who represented the IOA in half a dozen other cases, says.
The sailing case also witnessed courtroom drama with a 25-minute recording of the minutes of a meeting convened by the IOA to thrash out the selection issue between the Yatching Association of India (YAI) and sailor Varsha Gautam, the petitioner, being played out. YAI secretary general Atul Anand issued an unconditional apology for what the court saw as a ‘veiled threat’ when he told Varsha at the meeting: “Olympics is still round the corner, let us not burn bridges”.
The audio recording was key evidence which resulted in Anand being pulled up.
The IOA has its own arbitration tribunal and disputes commission but athletes are either not aware of it or simply prefer going to courts. “Athletes are more aware of their rights and they believe that only by going to court can they get justice. Many of the well-known lawyers are willing to represent athletes on a pro bono basis,” Phalpher says. “Before the previous edition of the Asian Games there were three-to-four cases, now it has increased nearly three fold. This number will only increase,”Phalper adds.
The IOA has been forced to make eleventh-hour additions. The men’s handball team didn’t feature in the 524-strong list of athletes cleared by the IOA but was part of the draw announced by the organising committee. The Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court directed the IOA to include the team after the Handball Federation of India filed a writ petition. The IOA was also forced to add the dragon boat race team after the Delhi High Court took cognizance of medals won at an Asian level event.
Narinder Batra, IOA president said: “We had made some changes this time, which led to some issues. This was the first time the team was selected on the basis of the criteria IOA and sports ministry had set. People have the right to approach the court. We made changes according to the court’s directions.”
India’s big-fat selection drama
Athletics: Campers’ dilemma
Prachi Choudhary and Chhavi Sahrawat were axed from relay team despite finishing ahead of those who have made the cut. They approached the Supreme Court, who dismissed their petition, saying that changing the teams so late would impact performance.
The selection of Pullela Gopichand’s daughter led to Aparna Balan and Vaishnavi Reddy moving the Kerala and Delhi High Courts. They contested there should have been a third doubles pair instead of six singles players. The petitions, though, were dismissed.
Bridge: playing right cards
The IOA omitted them from the initial list, claiming they’d missed deadline to submit the teams. When they pointed out that they are a priority sport and submitted proofs of meeting the deadline, they were reinstated.
Canoeing: Court ruling
After the IOA refused to send the boat racing team, Abhay Singh – one of the competitors – sought Delhi High Court’s intervention, highlighting at the recent results. The court ruled in his favour.
Equestrian: flawed process
Named eventing and show jumping teams in June but decided against sending them. Multiple flip-flops and two court cases later, they re-selected a team. Now, the federation has tinkered with the rider-horse combination. There’s no clarity on the team yet.
Football: kicked out
The IOA said football teams did not meet the criteria. According to the guidelines, only those teams which are ranked in Asia’s top-8 were to be allowed to compete – the men’s team is 14th while women is 13th.
Handball: backdoor entry
The men’s handball team was initially omitted. Yet, they got into the draw using their clout. That worked in their favour when they then approached the HC, who left the decision to IOA. The Olympic body’s legal commission cleared the team eventually.
Pencak silat: Fake credentials
The initial list had a 22-member team but the IOA dropped 20 names, alleging they faked their credentials. The pencak silat federation refuted IOA’s claims and threatened to drag IOA to court but decided against it.
Rugby: missing criteria
After the IOA agreed in principle and Sports Authority of India sanctioned a preparatory camp for 22 days, they were told the team did not meet the criteria.
Sambo: all in the family
The initial six-member squad was removed after the IOA realised all players were the blood relatives of Sambo federation’s secretary Deputy Ram Sharma and did not take part in trials.
Sailing: in troubled waters
Varsha Gautham moved the Delhi HC, challenging the selection of Ekta Yadav in the 49er FX category. The court ordered a re-trial, which couldn’t be held due to paucity of time. Eventually, the court ordered the IOA to select team and they chose Varsha.
Taekwondo: no clarity yet
Sports secretary Rahul Bhatnagar, acting on an order from Delhi High Court, recommended three names. But they haven’t been cleared by the organising committee yet, as they were submitted after deadline.
Triathlon: misleading IOA
The entire team was dropped after the national federation furnished ‘misleading information’. The officials claimed their event was being held for the first time while IOA found out it was held multiple times in the past. As a result, they were dropped.
Wrestling: weighty issues
Several CWG medalists were exempted from the trials. Rahul Aware gave it a miss, assuming he was granted exemption as well. When it went ahead without him, he cried foul.
Heena Sidhu alleged the National Rifle Association of India’s selection committee tweaked rules to ‘favour the favourites’, hinting at Manu Bhaker. The teenager’s inclusion reportedly pushed Sidhu out of the mixed team events.
Tennis: doubles trouble
All India Tennis Association’s decision to pair Leander Paes and Sumit Nagal for as the second team for men’s doubles raised quite a few eye brows. When teams were announced, Paes was ranked 74 and Nagal was 560 in doubles.
with the Express Morning Briefing