Citius, Altius, Autonomous ? Going Around in (Olympic) Circles

The heated exchanges between the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sport (Ministry) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have dominated the sporting pages over the last four weeks.  Letters have been flying thick and fast as these bodies trade punches over how sport should be administered in India. While the dominant theme has been the alleged affront to the “autonomy of the Olympic movement” in India by the Ministry, there clearly is more to the story.

Notesonsports examines the key actors involved in this controversy and what it entails for the future of Indian sport.


For decades the performance of Indian contingents at the Olympic Games has been abysmal. At the most recent Olympics at Beijing, India ranked 50th among the 80 countries that won at least a single medal, lagging behind countries like Latvia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Figure 1: Comparative Medals Tally

Figure 1: Comparative Medals Tally

This is not news to anyone and once the post Olympic lambasting of the authorities has used up enough newsprint, we return to the solace of watching our cricket team take apart Bangladesh with glee.

India’s PARTICIPATION at Olympic Games

Winning is not everything, and the spirit of the Olympic movement lays emphasis on participation more than victory. So presumably the yardstick to evaluate India’s Olympic forays and the IOA’s perfomance (or lack thereof) should be squad size and number of disciplines India competes in. Here’s how we squared up against a random selection of countries at the Beijing 2008 Olympics:

Figure 2: Comparative Squad Size and Disciplines Competed in

Figure 2: Comparative Squad Size and Disciplines Competed in

In case you are wondering what the Indian Olympic Association was doing about this, here’s a clue -the Indian contingent at Beijing 2008 comprised 57 athletes and 42 officials as support staff!

Efforts to Improve Administration of Sport in India

The need to improve governance standards in Indian sports administration were felt nearly four decades ago. The matter seems to have come to a head only recently, perhaps because of a combination of an enthusiastic Sports Minister and a Public Interest Litigation filed by Delhi based advocate Rahul Mehra, questioning the operations of National Sports Federations and the Indian Olympic Association as personal fiefdoms of a few individuals (mostly politicians).

IOA and the Sports Ministry

Interestingly, the Indian Olympic Association existed before independent India came into existence and it was not until May 2000, that the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport officially had a Department of Sports in operation.

The controversy at hand is occasioned by a requirement to restrict tenures of officials serving on the National Sporting Federations (NSFs) and the IOA. This requirement was first contemplated in 1975 as the National Sports Guidelines, prescribing a maximum tenure of eight years for the concerned officials. It wasn’t until 1982, against the backdrop of the IX Asian Games in Delhi that the Department of Sports was set up.

The 1975 Guidelines were kept in abeyance by an order of August 2002 by the Sports Minister of that time (Uma Bharti).  Following a directive of the Delhi High Court (in the PIL filed by Advocate Rahul Mehra) to the Ministry to formulate rules and regulations for running sports organizations on or before the 5th of May, the present Minister Mr. MS Gill, has attempted to revive the 1975 Guidelines.

According to the Ministry, the maximum tenure has been increased from 8 years (in the 1975 Guidelines) to 12 years and a retirement age of 70 years has been prescribed.

The Olympic Charter

There has been much discussion about the Olympic Charter and it is worthwhile to discuss this hallowed document briefly. Essentially the Charter is a constitutional document that outlines the principles of the Olympic movement, the powers of the International Olympic Committee, International Federations and National Olympic Committees and other legal and procedural aspects governing the Olympic Games.

Chapter 4 (Rules 28 -32) of the Olympic Charter contain the provisions relevant to National Olympic Committees (NOCs) with a prescription to these NOCs to develop, promote and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries, in accordance with the Olympic Charter.

By Laws to Rule 28 and 29 governing Recognition of NOCs provide, inter alia, the following:

1.5  The officers and members of the executive body of an NOC shall be elected in accordance with the NOC’s statutes, for a term of office not exceeding four years; they may be eligible for re-election.

The Charter also requires in Chapter 4, Rule 26.6 that the NOCs maintain their autonomy and resist governmental infringements of the principles of the Olympic Charter:

Chapter 4 Rule 26.6: The NOCs must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter.

Autonomy & Autocracy: The Thin Line

It is behind the smokescreen of these principles espoused in the Olympic Charter that the IOA and the NSFs have sought to reject the guidelines from the Ministry.

Given the history of the Olympic games and the changing geo-political context of the world over the last 100 years, the context of the Olympic Charter’s emphasis on autonomy needs to be identified.

The modern Olympic games have often witnessed politicking and governmental maneuvering. Be it the boycott of the Moscow games (1980) where 62 countries skipped the games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 32 year absence of China because of the Two Chinas controversy (Taiwan), the boycott of the Montreal games (1976) by 26 countries over the inclusion of New Zealand (following the three month tour by the Kiwis to ‘segregated’ South Africa) and a host of other political theatres, the Olympic games have found it difficult to isolate themselves from the realities of politics concerning governments the world over.

The requirement of autonomy is thus steeped in the IOC’s desire to ensure that the Olympic games, in essence a celebration of sport the world over remain independent of the political interference, nepotism, discrimination and bias that sovereign governments could employ.

[For an insightful analysis of the interpretation of ‘autonomy’ and related subjects under the Olympic Charter, must read: Jean-Loup Chappelet, with Amandine Bousigue and Benjamin Cohen, “The Autonomy of Sport in Europe”]

The Olympic Charter attempts to restrain governmental interference in the fair and efficient operations of the NOC by retaining the following discretionary power in the Charter:

Chapter 4 Rule 9: Apart from the measures and sanctions provided in the case of infringement of the Olympic Charter, the IOC Executive Board may take any appropriate decisions for the protection of the Olympic Movement in the country of an NOC, including suspension of or withdrawal of recognition from such NOC if the constitution, law or other regulations in force in the country concerned, or any act by any governmental or other body causes the activity of the NOC or the making or expression of its will to be hampered. The IOC Executive Board shall offer such NOC an opportunity to be heard before any such decision is taken.

This Rule was recently invoked to disqualify Kuwait from the Olympic Games by withdrawing the recognition of its NOC, on the grounds of interference by the government in the autonomous operations (elections) of the said NOC. .

The IOA has defended its existing procedures that allow officials to ‘serve’ in perpetuity citing the right to function autonomously – a view endorsed by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the IOC in recent communications addressed to the IOA and shared with the Ministry.

Autonomy, Results and Good Governance

The question of seeking changes in the functioning of the IOA and the NSFs perhaps may not have arisen, had the performance and indeed the representation of India at the Olympic games not been so abysmal. Once every four years, the nation is embarrassed by countries who at times are less populous than some Indian districts. The IOA and the teams, bear the Indian flag, the national symbols and represent the aspirations and pride of 1.3 billion Indians.

To say that in a representative democracy, the people must watch helplessly as a few autonomous body, stubbornly repeats and magnifies its blunders on the world stage, while the government of the day is powerless to suggest remedial measures, is absurd.  Essentially, once a body is accepted by the IOC as the NOC of a country, the options available to the government (or people) of the country to ensure efficiency and accountability of the said NOC are virtually non-existent, as the sword (and ignominy) of disqualification looms large.

The IOC knows it too!

However, the International Olympic Committee over last 5 years has been more than seized of the need to rework the Olympic Charter with the changing nature of the involvement of nation states in the Olympic movement.

Here is an extract from the presentation delivered by veteran Olympic administrator, MARIO VÁZQUEZ RAÑA, President, Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) at Olympic Congress, (October 2009):

The presence of over 130 Heads of State and Government at the Olympic Games in Beijing requires from us some reflection on the great interest in the Games. This new reality allows us to state that in the future, relations between the NOC and the Governments concerning the development of Olympic sport will be subject to different terms. This new profile requires from us clear and precise rules, as well as mutual respect and the will to work in a united way.

We must analyse possible modifications to the Olympic Charter which may contribute to greater clarity and precision in the rules governing the NOCs’ Autonomy. We must define the process to be applied in cases of conflicts where our Autonomy is infringed upon. The importance of Good Governance and of transparency must be underlined, as they are essential elements to ensure compliance with the Autonomy of Olympic Organizations.

We are fully convinced that it is only by working together that we can meet the duties and obligations we all have towards Olympic sport and the youth of the world; if united – the International Olympic Committee, the National Olympic Committees, the International Federations and the Governments – then we can reach our objectives.

Yes Minister!

Not everything MS Gill has said or done as Minister for Sport has resonated well among the people (You may recall his uncharitable dismissal of Formula 1 as not being a sport). Yet, by taking on the IOA and the NSFs and doing it with transparency, he has brought the debate to the street and found widespread support. (See Hindu Opinion Editorial)

The IOA may have exercised its good offices with the IOC to get letters in support of their arbitrary style of functioning, yet the request by the Ministry to meet the IOC officials is a welcome move.  Engaging the IOC in dialogue independent of the IOA will allow the Ministry to present its concerns and justify the need for its insistence on good governance in these bodies.

The timing of this entire exercise has come under criticism from some observers citing this as an impediment to the preparations for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, New Delhi, October 2010.  Perhaps the timing has much to do with the heat turned on the Sports Ministry by the Delhi High Court hearing the aforementioned PIL.

The correspondence exchanged between the Ministry, the IOA, the IOC and the OCA makes for very interesting reading. The Ministry’s latest communication in particular which makes reference to the Ted Steven’s law of 1978 (United States), the IOC’s recommendations on Good Governance principles and the detailed exposition on all applicable aspects is erudite and instructive.

The plot thickens with every passing day. Just today (May 21, 2010), the Hon’ble Delhi High Court observed (in the matter concerning the disbanding of the Indian Hockey Federation) as below:

“Sports bodies have to have a degree of autonomy with the government playing the role of an effective regulator. They must be allowed to function in a democratic manner with persons really interested in developing the game participating in its affairs.”

Clearly, we are far from the final whistle.  Perhaps, India may stand suspended from the Olympic Games for a while, perhaps the IOA and the federations will fall in line, perhaps a set of guidelines that have lied dormant for 35 years will relapse into the oblivion.

In any event, a new chapter will be added to the rapidly expanding Sports Law regime in India.

Related Content:

Return to soon for more on “What if India is suspended from the Olympic Games” and “Can judges finally deliver to Indian sport what ministers and administrators could not.”

  • Esmail

    Very insightful. I think you've given an excellent synopsis of what's been happening. How about an analysis of what makes the Olympic bodies of other governments so successful and what should we do to improve our performance?