Amid Covid-19 chaos, a helping hand for athletes - but they don't know it

G Sathiyan, India's top-ranked table tennis player, was unaware of the IOA Athletes Commission's existence. Getty Images

G Sathiyan, India's top-ranked table tennis player, is in a state of some confusion as he waits to resume training. The Union home ministry has okayed the opening up of sports complexes but the Tamil Nadu government has converted the state's largest multipurpose sports facility, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, into a transit resting place for migrant workers.

And so Sathiyan is stuck. "There is no clarity," he says. "It's upsetting. As athletes you just want to know how and when you can train. But just coordinating with different authorities is turning out to be the most stressful part now."

What Sathiyan didn't know, until a conversation with this writer, was that there is a top-level body to do just that: the IOA Athletes Commission, mandated by the International Olympic Committee to, among other things, "represent rights and interests of athletes". Headed by Anju Bobby George, the 2005 World Championship bronze medallist, the commission was set up in 2018 and includes Abhinav Bindra and Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan.

Each National Sports Federation (NSF) is also mandated to have an Athlete Commission of its own but, as Sathiyan says, the TTFI doesn't. "Players like me and Sharath [Kamal] keep in contact with the TTFI secretary-general. But for the larger group of players, calling up an administrator for problems isn't a comfortable idea. When you have an Athlete Commission and you know it's another athlete you're reaching out to for help, it's that much easier to communicate. It's also a win-win for federations because that way athlete feedback reaches them in a streamlined fashion."

The commission was set up too late to help sprinter Dutee Chand in her fight for her gender identity in 2014. She was pulled out of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games squad and put through blood tests, ultrasound, MRI, detailed gynaecological checks as well as a karyotyping procedure.

It was a fight she had to wage largely on her own and today she says she wishes the commission had existed back then. "That episode taught me so much about international regulations, protocols and what rights I have as an athlete," says Dutee, who incidentally was unaware of the commission's present existence. "Under normal circumstances as athletes we only think of competition and performance. It's only when we are thrown into a problem that we realise we know so little outside it."

Spreading the word

Anju, who agrees the lack of awareness within its target group is a real problem, feels the commission -- while helping with doping and ban-related issues -- holds the potential to play a crucial role in breaking the culture of silence around sexual harassment. "In such situations, as a female athlete you often aren't sure who to turn to within the system. If a complainant knows that all she has to do is pick up the phone and call another female former athlete who's on the commission, it will move more people to speak up. Calling out inappropriate behaviour is the first and hardest step and the commission could be an expressway solution to it."

Where there is awareness, there has been some success. In December 2019, Anju received a desperate call for help from rower Dattu Bhokanal. Part of the team that won gold in quadruple sculls at the 2018 Asian Games, Dattu was serving a two-year suspension handed by the Rowing Federation of India (RFI) on charges of tanking his singles sculls race at the event midway after the 1,000m mark. Anju wrote to the IOA president Narinder Batra requesting him to look into the matter; Batra in turn sought an explanation from the RFI on the rules referred to in adjudicating the case.

"It was a really stressful time for me," says Anju. "Here's an athlete seeking assistance... and when I heard him out, it seemed like he'd been handed a harsh, maybe even biased, decision by his federation. The Olympic qualification was ending in a couple of months' time and it just didn't seem fair for him to miss out on it. I decided to back Dattu. Mine was an unpopular opinion and there was a lot of talk over it. I just told myself, 'Look, even if I have to face flak for it, that's OK. It's for an athlete's chance to be at the Games. I'll take it.'"

In January, the RFI lifted the suspension on Dattu and allowed him to return to competition.

Dattu, though, was an exception. A rare case of an athlete reaching out directly to the current IOA Athletes Commission in two years of its existence.

New body, old problems

Keshavan, a six-time Winter Olympian, says they're still finding their way. "We're still a new body, and the structures are being put in place," he says. "We have pencilled in a few plans, like implementing the IOC programme for mentorship of junior athletes. We've also applied for a $10,000 Olympic Solidarity Grant that will allow us to conduct an annual Athlete Commissions' forum to be attended by the chairs of all NSF commissions."

The IOC stipulates that a majority of the commission's five members should be elected and should be active national-level athletes or those who have been so within the previous four years. The present IOA Athletes Commission is an entirely nominated one, with only Keshavan falling within the four-year competitive window criterion.

At its most recent meeting conducted via Zoom two weeks ago, with Batra in attendance, the commission had sought a list of NSFs with functional Athletes Commissions. It was following up on its directive after its AGM in December 2018 when it asked all NSFs to set up their own Athletes Commissions within three months or face action. A year and a half later, there is still no clarity.

"We're checking on the NSFs that don't have such commissions," says IOA general secretary Rajeev Mehta. "Even the NSFs that have Athlete Commissions are largely of a nominated composition. They might have to get elected members. Our own Athlete Commission is also a nominated one. We are trying to figure a way to fix these things."

Now that their meetings are going to be virtual for a while, it's easier for all members to come together more often, says Anju. They've sent out official invites to both Bindra and Sardar Singh, another member, to join them for future meetings, to which they have agreed. "Whether it's us or another bunch of members who follow us," says Anju, "it should be a working system for athletes' service. Our first job is to build awareness about the commission among athletes. We need to run some sort of publicity campaign and reach out to athletes. They should know we are just phone call away."