Off-side: Need a level playing field in sports administration

The tearful exit of Indian women’s hockey team coach Janneke Schopman and the resignation of longstanding Hockey India CEO Elena Norman put the spotlight back on the male-dominated, often misogynistic, world of Indian sports administration.

“I see the difference in how the men’s coaches are treated and between the girls and the men’s team. This country is extremely difficult for a woman. Coming from a culture where you have an opinion and are valued for it, it’s really hard,” an emotional Schopman said days before her resignation. And Norman, too, spoke about difficult working conditions.

It sparked an online outrage that showed there were no easy answers — ideological divides were deep, with some chastising Schopman for vilifying the country while others commended her for speaking out. But the powers that be at Hockey India, except its president, Dilip Tirkey, wasted no time in sweeping such inconvenient truths under the proverbial rug, opting instead to concoct more palatable explanations for their departures. Why bother with self-reflection when you have mastered the art of deflection?

While there has been some progress in gender parity in Indian sports, with more women participating (India had 56 women athletes out of the 127 at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics) and even getting larger screen time and sponsorships, the dearth of women in decision-making roles within the National Sports Federations is glaring. Out of 60 NSFs recognised by the Union Sports Ministry, only a meagre three — the Special Olympics, table tennis, and rowing — have a woman president, while the Indian Olympic Association is headed by P. T. Usha.

Women even fail to find a place in the executive councils with less than 1 per cent representation. Take badminton, for instance, a sport that has given India two female Olympic medallists, yet its national Executive Council is a women-free zone.

“Political leaders who have long dominated sports bodies have not encouraged professionals — men or women — to be in leadership positions. However, with women increasingly participating and excelling in sports, there is more visibility for women in administrative bodies. Women have also not adequately asserted themselves for these jobs. For this, they need training and exposure,” says Neelam Kapur, former Director General of the Sports Authority of India.

Shattering the glass ceiling is easier said than done. Commonwealth Games champion Anita Sheoran, the lone woman candidate, was trounced 7-40 in the Wrestling Federation of India election by Sanjay Singh, a confidant of the former chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who was earlier accused of sexual harassment.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, the nation’s wealthiest sports entity, boasts a grand total of one woman in its nine-member Apex Council. The WPL Committee, tasked with promoting and managing the women’s version of the Indian Premier League, mirrors this with a single female representative.

“Women in leading roles in sports administration can bring diverse perspectives, fostering inclusivity and equity. Their presence helps address gender biases, inspiring future generations and creating a more balanced and representative sports landscape,” says 10-time National badminton champion Manjusha Kanwar, now a Sports Coordinator (Corporate Office) at the IndianOil Corporation Ltd. “It will be a dream come true and a total game changer if India leapfrogs the top countries by giving more opportunities to women in sports administration.”

Perhaps it is time for the Indian lawmakers to extend the same courtesy to sports as they did to their ranks — a quota for women in sports administration, akin to the 33 per cent reservation for women in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha — and create a level-playing field.

Kapur, however, feels a quota cannot be a long-term solution. “I feel that a quota may reduce the presence of women in these tokenisms, but it is a good beginning and can act as a catalyst for more women to participate in sports bodies,” she says.

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