The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwalla, who took charge at the AFI in April, spoke to The Hindu on the sidelines of the National youth athletics championship here on Sunday. He touched on the country’s track and field prospects at the London Olympics and the Pinki Pramanik incident.
You have taken over as AFI President in the Olympic year, does this bring additional pressure?
Before I took over as AFI President, I was the chairman of the junior selection committee and involved in other activities here, so I was connected in some way. This is an extension of what I was already doing. My aim is to provide our athletes whatever they need, and give as much support as we can.
Regarding the Olympic year, emotions are definitely high. People expect our athletes to qualify and do well. But some disappointments are bound to happen. I want the media, coaches and the public to have a balanced view, and temper down the baseless criticisms. The media, especially, must understand that it is the athletes that suffer because of wrong reports, as vital sponsors become hesitant to come forward and help their development.
What tasks have you undertaken after taking over?
The most important task is to set up strong junior programmes. Most of the training and money spent now is on the seniors, and the juniors have suffered. Next is to bring in more foreign coaches to get the foundations and basics of our juniors right. I want to develop all our junior athletes with strong technique. Third, the AFI is adamant about a complete clamp on doping. We have been pushing the WADA to check on our events. The AFI believes that coaches who administer drugs to their wards must get jail time.
Jail time for coaches? Please explain.
My hope is that the relevant authorities should treat errant coaches like drug peddlers. If you administer performance enhancing drugs to a young kid, you deserve jail time.
To implement junior programmes, the federation needs a lot of money. What are your sources for money, and what role does the government play?
The government has been kind enough to give us money. All training camps we have for our athletes are funded by the government, along with accommodation, travel and other expenses involved in conducting a camp. But they do not fund competitions like this. (from the sidelines of the National youth athletics championships in Bangalore)
But events like this are important to develop the skills of the athletes.
Yes. This event is being organized by the Karnataka Athletic Association (KAA), so they bear the expenses. It is of course run under the auspices of the AFI.
So does the AFI have money to spend on these events?
The AFI does not have money at all. The government’s money goes directly to the training camps, we don’t see any of it. We’re scraping at the bottom, but we ensure that athletes have all their basic needs well covered.
How would you rate India’s chances in track and field at the Olympics?
In London, if all our athletes record their personal best, I will be the happiest man on earth. We cannot control what the favourites from around the world will accomplish in London. But we can control our performance. I expect a few top-10 finishes, but discus throwers Krishna Poonia, Vikas Gowda and Seema Antil should do better than a top-10 spot.
There is a lot of talk suggesting that the planning from the AFI in terms of arranging the required number events for our athletes to qualify for London was not done well. Your views?
Our plan was set after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where an expert panel of coaches and former international athletes decided that eight events would be ideal. That is four international events, and four in India. This is what the experts thought was best. All our ‘A’ grade athletes have qualified, only some of the ‘B’ athletes have failed. Everyone has a view and I respect that. But can you question the decision of a panel which consists two Olympians, the best brains in India?
Discus thrower Vikas Gowda recently said the AFI should send both his father as well as his coach John Godina (double Olympic medal winner) with him to London, instead of just his father.
This is a simple thing to analyse. The IOC sets a quota, where the support staff can be only one-third of the number of competing athletes. We have 14 competing athletes, so we can send four support staff. Vikas gave us a written request asking for his father over his coach. We agreed because we want to give him what he is most comfortable with. Now Vikas wants his coach as well. That is two out of four. This is unfair to other competing athletes. How about the four walkers who have qualified? They deserve a coach. We will send our chief coach Bahadur Singh, a walking coach, Krisna Poonia’s husband Virender Poonia as he can assist Seema Antil as well, and Vikas’s father. Everyone wants their coach, but there are just no spots available.
What were the reasons for AFI asking marathoner Ram Singh, and jumpers jumper Renjith Maheswari and Mayooka Johny to prove their fitness even though they qualified for the Olympics?
Ram Singh qualified for the Olympics in January 2012. The Olympics begins in August. In this period, he is not going to compete in a single event. Even a layman will ask for updates on his fitness. The AFI asked him to inform us when he goes on a 10km run, so that we send two of our coaches to observe him.
Observe him during general training or a competition?
No, not at all. Just during regular training. We never told them to compete in an event to prove his fitness or anything like that.
How about Mayooka and Renjith?
Well, Renjith was sent to Italy in April for training. We have received his fitness reports and he has been cleared, so there is no issue there. Mayooka just finished an event yesterday, so we will get her fitness report very soon.
Perhaps the AFI does not want an incident like the injured Indian cricketers who traveled to Australia and England and broke down there?
Yes, that is correct. If an injured athlete gets found out in Olympics, the AFI is responsible. Why is it so wrong to ask them to prove their fitness? After all, the government has spent a lot of money in their training abroad and general support.
What are your views on the allegations against Pinki Pramanik?
It’s a shame and a disgrace not because she is an Asian Games gold medal winner, but for the way women in this country are being treated. You take this girl and house her with men in the prison with shared toilets! Let us look at the charges in this case. There is an alleged rape charge but hospitals have not been able to confirm the presence of a physical attribute. Since Pinki is not an active athlete now, the AFI’s role is a non-starter. This is a case for the human rights and women’s rights bodies.
Any complaints questioning Pinki’s gender during her competing days?
No, we did not receive a single complaint against her or any other athlete. If it comes to it, the AFI will hand over Pinki’s detailed medical report to an expert panel comprising top doctors.
In general, how exactly does the AFI act on a complaint, if any? What is the standard procedure to test the gender of an athlete?
Until 1992, female athletes were required to undergo a feminity test. This was banned by the IAAF on humanitarian grounds. Now, the athlete can undergo a test only if a formal complaint is lodged.
So the AFI cannot undertake action on its own without a formal complaint?
No, we cannot. But is not like we ignore suspicious cases, we keep an eye out. We even take note of any casual talk questioning an athlete’s gender.
Has Pinki contacted you for any assistance?
No, she has not. But if she contacts us, we are ready to do anything to help her. Never mind that she isn’t an active athlete, we will assist her on humanitarian grounds. I also want to say that she is our family, and we stand by her 100 per cent.
How about including more former athletes in the AFI? Many former athletes criticize the AFI’s functioning openly.
I have invited former athletes to join us many times, even in my opening speech as AFI President. If you want to make a change, come to the mainstream. If not, then do positive work like coaching, don’t criticise.