The announcement of Athens Olympics silver medallists Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as the new Sports Minister of India was met with so much euphoria from sportspersons and anyone who follows sport that one might want to believe that the 47-year-old has a magic wand to solve all the problems ailing Indian sport.
The excitement is expected. For years, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports have been helmed by politicians who either had little interest in the job or looked at it only as a public relations exercise while the Sports Authority of India ran the show.
The gap in communication and subsequent delays in decision making has been the major point of contention between players and the ministry and the most frequent demand has been to hand over sports administration to former sportspersons.
The appointment of a former sportsperson, who is also the country’s first individual Olympic silver medallist, is therefore looked at as a major step towards bridging that gap and fast tracking the reforms required to streamline the mess that is ailing Indian sports.
Almost all congratulatory messages on social media from current and former players have been underlining the Olympic medal winning credentials of Rathore and how he is the man to change things around.
And that is where we may probably be making the mistake of jumping the gun or putting too much pressure on the man, nicknamed ‘Chilly’, to find an overnight solution to every problem that has plagued Indian sport for decades.
And just because he is a decorated sportsperson, his honeymoon period at Shastri Bhavan would end lot quicker than his predecessors as everyone will want him to change the system quickly.
Olympian and Olympic Gold Quest CEO Viren Rasquinha admits that the pressure on Rathore would be higher than his predecessors given his sports background but insists that the 47-year-old will have to take it in his strides. “Yes, the pressure will be higher. But so be it. I think the best sports minister before this was Ajay Maken who brought about important changes in about a year and half.
“Being a sportsperson, Rathore won’t have to spend six months understanding the system and how it works. So I am hopeful that the changes can happen faster,” he added.
Rathore’s first test would be to kick start the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as soon as possible as the players have already started to feel frustrated with the delays in releasing of funds for their preparations as the Ministry is trying to keep a tight leash on how the funds are spent after the debacle in Rio. Players, on the other hand, want a free hand – without any real accountability – and that could lead to a major flare up at some stage.
But the real expectation from Rathore would be to expedite the implementation of the Sports Code that aims to bring more accountability and professionalism in the running of Sports Federations.
While the new draft of the Sports Code is ready and has been submitted to the Delhi High Court due to an ongoing court case, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the new Minister can build a consensus across party lines, politicians are at the helm of most Federations, to begin the process of converting the code into a Bill and make the implementation mandatory for all sports bodies.
But as things stand, it is easier said than done.
There are too many wheels within wheels that will have to be activated for the machinery to start functioning at optimum levels.
During his playing days and even after, Rathore had his own run-ins with the authorities and probably understood how difficult it is to take on the National Federations when tried to contest an election for the National Rifle Association of India election against incumbent Raninder Singh and had to ultimately take legal recourse.
But as a minister the challenges would be much bigger as he will also have to balance the push for athlete-centric approach with the insecurities of the bureaucrats who run the Sports Ministry and SAI apart from dealing with more than 30-40 National Federations who have their own agendas and ways of functioning.
Also, sports is still a state subject under the Indian Constitution and that means for a real change to happen at the grass-root level the state governments and allied bodies would have to be on the same page for long term reforms to be planned and implemented.
Rathore himself said as much in his first reaction after taking over.
“Sports is a state subject so we will work together with the state departments to provide, like I said, best of the opportunities for the sportspersons,” he told reporters.
Players and administrators are also worried that Rathore’s personal grudges or likes/dislikes about individuals could come in the way of rational decision-making unless the politician and leader in him can overlook the past and concentrate on the future.
Rathore is just a day into his new assignment and took over the job officially only on Monday. All we can say at this stage is that the Olympic silver medallist is possibly the best man to put your money on... not just because of his credentials as a sportsperson but also because he has managed to win a general election and gain the Prime Minister’s trust during his tenure in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
There are, however, many ifs and buts they will have to be addressed before we can pass a judgement on whether this appointment will actually change the way sports is run in India.