A stand-off between the Indian government and an 81-year-old archery administrator is threatening to pierce the country’s hopes of a swift return to the ranks of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) membership of the IOC was suspended in December after Lalit Bhanot, who is facing corruption charges over the scandal-tainted 2010 Commonwealth Games, was elected its secretary general.
The Indian government and sports officials have been invited to two days of talks from tomorrow at the IOC’s Swiss headquarters, with all sides apparently keen to bring India back into the fold.
However, now Vijay Kumar Malhotra, who became the Indian association’s acting president as a result of the crisis, is trying to scupper the get-together in Lausanne in a battle against new legislation that would force him to retire.
The Indian Ministry of Sports is putting finishing touches to a long-delayed bill that would make it mandatory for sports officials to retire at 70, as well as limit their tenures in office to 12 years.
Malhotra, who has headed the country’s archery association since 1973, is arguing that such a move amounts to political interference by the governing Congress party and has asked for the meeting to be cancelled.
“We are rather constrained to say that the sports ministry is bent on destroying the autonomy of the IOA and the national sports federations,” Malhotra wrote in an open letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge.
Malhotra, a former lawmaker for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), added that the planned legislation constituted a “total breach of the Olympic Charter,” which prohibits government interference.
The government has been infuriated by Malhotra’s tactics, while sports stars have also lashed out at him, worried about the impact on funding and their chances of competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Suspension of the IOC membership means India does not receive funding from the world body, its officials are banned from attending Olympic events and its athletes are barred from competing in the Olympics under the national flag.
“I am deeply shocked and upset by the contents of the letter,” Indian Minister of Sports Jitendra Singh said.
“As far as the sports bill is concerned, the priority of the government is to get the bill passed in parliament and make it a law. If the IOA is not interested in fixing a date with the IOC, I will personally go to Lausanne and speak to them. India has to get back into the Olympic fold,” he said.
The government says it has been forced to act to ensure that administrators such as Malhotra cannot treat their sports as their personal fiefdom and cling to power way past India’s normal retirement age of 60.
The government has found itself at loggerheads with a growing number of sports bodies recently, including the country’s amateur boxing federation, in a dispute over the election of its chairman.
Following a series of scandals, sympathy for the sports administrators and their efforts to fight the government’s new code is in short supply.
India’s Olympics movement has struggled to escape the taint left by the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which was meant to be a showcase for the Indian capital, but instead turned into a national embarrassment.
Corruption cases against Bhanot and former Commonwealth Games local organizing committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi are still working their way through the courts.