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Ugra: Misguided IOA shooting itself in foot with Birmingham boycott threats

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Only one question arose when a letter from the head of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to the Indian Sports Minister was made public, indicating the "intention of the IOA to most probably not participate in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in UK due to non-inclusion of shooting in CWG2022."

The question was this: Is there an identity crisis at play here? An identity crisis in which the IOA believes it runs cricket (not Olympic sport) in India, and so is directing its anger towards cricket's international ruling body because the IOA has financial muscle it can flex?

What does this "intention... to probably not participate" reflect other than the misguided notion that an Indian Olympic boycott of any mega-event will shake the roots of the event itself, and render the movement behind it bankrupt? The only other possible line of thinking that this idea could belong to is the IOA's misguided sense of its own importance, but let's not go there yet.

The IOA's impassioned argument contained in the letter to Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju lists India's medals won at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, their place in the Games ladder, and also issued a plaintive cry: "We have been noticing over the period of time that whenever India seems to be getting grip of the game and performing well, then somehow we find that either the goal posts are shifted or the rules are changed. We feel it is time for us in IOA/India to start asking tough questions and taking tough positions."

This 'tough position' then becomes the "intention... to most probably not participate" and, as the IOA informed Rijiju, to refuse to attend the CWF General Assembly (referred to as "the CWG Congress") being held in Kigali, Rwanda this week, and to also withdraw the names of its two office-bearers from the CWF elections.

"It will make no difference to the Games if India chooses not to show up in Birmingham. It will only hurt India's athletes - the track and field folk, the wrestlers, the gymnasts, the weightlifters, the TT players."

This 'tough position' is what truculent teenagers take when, displeased with the world, they shut the door and refuse to speak to anyone at home. The IOA (and the NRAI, who has verbally supported the "intention... to most probably not participate") are not helping the cause of Indian shooting even by boycotting Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) meetings or its elections for now. It is in those gatherings where influence can be exerted, and in elected positions of authority inside these federations that nations and sporting disciplines fight their corner. Being on the outside and threatening to boycott is as impactful as howling into a wind.

Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra had a measured response on his Twitter feed: "Boycotts don't win you influence. They just make you irrelevant and punish other athletes. Would be far better if IOA did a campaign to load the CWG committees with their people and allies and push for the inclusion of shooting onto the core list of sports for the future."

Mind you, Indian sports officials love being on international committees and India is ably represented high up in many places: IOA president Narinder Batra is head honcho of hockey's FIH and now a member of the IOC, the Swimming Federation of India's CEO Virendra Nanavati is vice-chairman of FINA, Suresh Kalmadi is life president in the Asian Athletics Association, and AIFF president Praful Patel is senior vice-president at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The larger benefit of their presence in these organisations on their sport remains open to debate. But if these individuals wanted to make a meaningful difference to their sport (other than winning hosting rights for mega events), it is in these positions that they really could.

By refusing to send in its own emissaries into CGF meetings, the IOA has shown to its athletes and the wider sporting community that its choice in this matter is that of a standoff. In which the chance of them overturning the decision to cut shooting out of Birmingham 2022 is as close to nil as is possible.

"You can only have influence if you are in the game," Bindra says. "If you are there at the assembly, in various committees. Only there you can exercise influence at each level. Decision-making in all these bodies is not from the top, it's a process and you need to have representation in all this."

It must be pointed out that it was in one such CGF General Assembly -- Colombo 2007 -- that a decision was taken to categorise sports according to core sports, optional sports and category 3 sports where further growth was required before they could be considered eligible for the Games.

According to a July 2007 newspaper report, the sports were set into these categories based on features like participation levels in the Commonwealth, the level of excellence, equity as well as marketability, and cost to host including cost of venues. The 10 core sports that came through in Colombo were athletics, swimming, badminton, boxing, hockey, lawnbowls, netball (women), rugby sevens (men), squash and weightlifting. Shooting was slotted in among the optional sport three years before even the Delhi Games in 2010, with IOA bigwigs present at the assembly.

The CGF media spokesman confirmed to ESPN that in 1998 there were only "two obligatory sports" (swimming and athletics). That number rose to five in 2003, but shooting still only belonged to a list of 20 other sports (and team sports) from which the "host country shall select a minimum of eight". In other words, shooting never made it to the "obligatory" category unlike, say, lawnbowls or netball (women) or men's rugby sevens.

Shooting had featured in every CWG from 1966 (barring Edinburgh 1970) even when hosts were offering between nine and 10 disciplines, the number rising to 15 sports only in Kuala Lumpur 1998.

The sports' high officials and stakeholders should not have allowed shooting to reach CWG's margins. Its world body, the ISSF, should have been on high alert after the Colombo 2007 meeting, given it was the first time that it was being formally edged out of its place in the CWG programme. Then having realised that shooting was going to be axed from Birmingham 2022, the ISSF should have accepted what was being offered by the CGF: a few select events.

Refusing the offer meant cutting off every trace of shooting's oxygen supply into the CWG programme. Even a bare minimum presence would have been better than a complete extinction from the programme. Maybe set up an air-rifle or pistol competition not in a full-scale shooting range, but an indoor sports hall.

Host cities of Commonwealth Games pick from optional sports whatever suits their athletes. In the last few Games, Great Britain's stock in shooting has fallen. In Gold Coast last year, the total shooting medals for Great Britain totalled 19 between England (8), Wales (5) and Scotland (6). At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Great Britain won two bronze medals in shooting. In Birmingham, why should the hosts bother with it when they could choose beach volleyball, women's T20 cricket or para table tennis?

It will make no difference to the Games if India chooses not to show up in Birmingham. It will only hurt India's athletes -- the track and field folk, the wrestlers, the gymnasts, the weightlifters, the TT players. The only way for his sport to pick itself up, Bindra says, "is to start real work to get shooting back on the programme. It won't be easy to get it back."

The most unsound approach would be to adopt, as he calls it, the "my way or the highway" position. At the moment, with this frankly risible threat of a boycott, Indian sport is promising to run itself off the road altogether.