September 10, 2014

Asian Games turmoil finally ends: Indian Basketball teams confirmed to participate

Sometimes, we can't help but slap our forehead and sigh "Only in India!"

With only 10 days left before the beginning of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (Korea), the Government of India finally (FINALLY!) made a decision on an ongoing stand-off that threatened to leave athletes participating in several sports - including our Men's and Women's senior national basketball teams - back home despite qualifying to play at the competition. On Tuesday, September 9th, the government eventually made a decision to send a contingent of 679 athletes and officials to Incheon; a much smaller number than the Asian Games four years ago, but with the basketball and a few of the other threatened sports included.

Even though, until a week ago, it seemed all but guaranteed that all of India's participants who have qualified in various disciplines will be part of the country's national contingent to Korea, this ridiculous saga began when the Sports Authority of India (SAI) recommended that the large number of athletes and officials in India's proposed list (944 total) be cut down to avoid embarrassment. SAI's director general Jiji Thompson had said "The IOA list is huge and we have recommended pruning. We don't want the athletes to cut a sorry figure there. We want to send people with a realistic chance of winning medals since it's the country's pride that is at stake."

According to DNA India, SAI's strict criteria for the participating athletes was for the athlete to be ranked at least top six in the while the team to be in the top eight. Five sports - Basketball, Football, Handball, Table Tennis, and Sepak Takraw - potentially faced the axe from the government if SAI's recommendation had been followed.

As the national teams even our national coach waited in limbo, things got even worse. As the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Sarbananda Sonowal decision to shift the responsibility of the decision to the Prime Minister's Office, India missed a crucial Delegates Registration Meeting in Incheon. With 11 days left before the Asian Games, since there was no government clearance, no Indian official could even be there in Incheon.

Meanwhile, both of India's Men and Women's football teams, who had headed to Shanghai (China) for an exposure trip in preparation for the Asian Games, remained stranded out there without any knowledge of what the government's future decision was going to be.

Eventually, good news (for some) trickled in yesterday when it was confirmed that the five threatened sporting disciplines - including basketball - have been cleared as part of India's final contingent for Korea. And if you think that the decision was made because the government suddenly had a change of heart about the importance of promoting these sports, you would be wrong: the decision was made because India were warned by the Asian Games organizing committee that they would have to pay a heavy penalty if the basketball, football, etc teams backed out now after previously confirming their participation and even being drawn into groups at the tournament.

The 2014 Asian Games basketball tournament is scheduled from September 20 to October 4. India's Men are among the 16 participating teams and have been drawn in Preliminary Group B with Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Palestine. India's Women are among 11 participating teams and have been seeded to the final round with China, South Korea, Japan, Chinese Taipei, and Thailand.

This tournament is incredibly crucial for Indian basketball. The Men's team is coming off a memorable performance at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) in July where they turned heads with their improved performances and even scored a memorable win over Asia's top team, China. India's women's side haven't been too shabby either; India finished at a best-ever fifth place in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Thailand, including their first-ever triumph in Level 1 of the tournament, an overtime win over Kazakhstan. For India to continue on the right track to improvement, it is important for our teams to get as much high-level international experience as possible. The Men and Women have been preparing for the Asian Games basketball tournament for several months, and it's a relief that the positive momentum that the teams had built up won't be halted due to SAI's silly claim that they didn't want "the athletes to cut a sorry figure" at Incheon, as Jiju Thomson said.

How are we ever going to improve and reach the top eight unless we play against as many top teams as possible? Denying Indian teams top level experience was only going to make our teams worse and thus - by the same SAI reasoning - decrease the chances of Indian participation in disciplines such as basketball even further.

Eventually, India's Asian Games contingent has been cut down to 679, featuring 516 athletes and 163 coaches/support staff. The Sports Minister Sonowal took the decision in consultation with Prime Mininster Narendra Modi.India will take part in a total of 28 disciplines, seven fewer than the previous Asian Games in Guangzhou (China) four years ago.

India had sent 609 athletes in a delegation of 933 to the Guangzhou Games in China four years ago where they participated in 35 disciplines and won 65 medals, including 14 gold.

Even though the result (for basketball) is a positive one, this is a worrying trend for India. If SAI or the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs only start thinking about sending teams who are going to be medal hopefuls, India's contingents for these events are going to get smaller and smaller. The basketball teams were finally cleared this time because of a fear of the penalty: but what if, in the 2018 Asian Games, the government doesn't register the participating of basketball, football, and similar sports in the first place so to skip the penalty altogether? Jiji Thompson had said that, "We want to send people with a realistic chance of winning medals since it's the country's pride that is at stake." This is what I say: Dear Mr. Thompson, the country's pride isn't just about winning medals, it's about competing with pride. Which is what our athletes always do.

After qualifying for the tournament for the first time in 28 years, India went winless at the basketball tournament at Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010, finishing 0-5 and 0-3 in the Men's and Women's tournament's respectively. China are both the Men's and Women's reigning basketball champs at the Asian Games.


  1. " This is what I say: Dear Mr. Thompson, the country's pride isn't just about winning medals, it's about competing with pride. Which is what our athletes always do. " love these lines by you Karan.

  2. Good piece Karan but feel this represents one side of the argument, and an emotional side considering your passion for Indian Basketball.

    I feel the concept of sending genuine medal contenders demands serious consideration in the future.

    Take the example of the 2010 Asian Games: We sent 625 athletes that won us 65 medals - equating to approximately 10 athletes/medal. I look at that number with shame when I see China won a medal for every 2 athletes it had, Japan and Korea for every 4 and even Iran for every 7. The expenses to send those 625 athletes was definitely considerable, and this is the taxpayer's money.

    Perhaps only 200 of those were medal prospects before the Games began and only 70 odd must have won medals. So if we know that only 40% of those 625 have a probable chance of winning a medal, should the Govt. be investing considerable financial resources to send the remaining 60% on the grounds of 'competing with pride'? Would it not be more wise to invest the funds saved by not sending the 60% into the development of that 60% or that sport with the aim of increasing the 40% figure for the next multi-sport event?

    This may be a very objective and non-emotional way of looking at things (not necessarily right) but at the same time I feel that there should be a place for our basketball team at this year's AG. That should never have been in doubt in the first place because participation in the AG is a logical step forward after the promising Asia Cup.

    So, to accommodate both arguments above, here's a solution I propose: Send medal prospects only but to decide this, objective KPIs that are achievable should be set out for each sport federation atleast 2 years in advance before any multi-sport competition. Also, the funds saved by not sending teams MUST be reinvested in the development of that particular sport. Finally, each contingent for multi-sport competitions must also comprise 25% wildcard athletes/teams i.e., teams which are not medal prospects but have shown enough promise in the 2 year KPI period to warrant a place in the contingent. This is where the basketball team could fit in.

    Your thoughts are more than welcome.

    1. Thanks for your great comment Sameer!

      First, to address the problem with only sending 'medal contenders'. This is the exact type of thinking that China has operated with for the last several years, which has indeed helped them secure many medals. On paper the number of medals looks very glossy and successful, but there is a real problem in China that many citizens and lovers of sports have complained about: with the country's focus on medals, they have completely forgotten about the joy/purpose of the sport. So even though China has a lot of medal winners, there are actually not as many grassroots athletes in China. The country has begun to focus only on developing the select few that will help China win medals in the long run and ignored looking at sport as a recreational activity to bring fitness/joy among the masses.

      Seeing China's example first-hand after being here on and off for several years, I fear that this is the wrong way for India to take. If we only think about medals, we won't really spread the sport to the grassroots, we'll just teach it to a select few. I dream of India winning basketball and football medals of course, but I would much rather hope that the country has a true grassroots culture of both sports (and others).

      If India were to only start sending medal hopefuls, it could begin a never-ending cycle where athletes in the sports that were left out (basketball, football, TT, etc) will never get the experience and exposure they need, because they missed out on a big tournament like Asian Games, and in turn, they'll never improve and miss out again in the Asian Games four years later. If we really want our teams to improve, we need to give them as much exposure as possible. This is just my opinion: some people are embarrassed by seeing India come last in the standings; I'd rather see them come last then not see them participate at all.

      I don't think there is a real problem of funding. Our ministry has a lot of money. But the athletes and the betterment of sport rarely sees that money. We all know about the abilities of the average Indian bureaucrat to mysteriously disappear those funds somewhere down the chain. India could've totally afforded to send over 900 athletes to Incheon this year, but I think because there wasn't transparency in the funds allotted, money "disappeared" and so athletes were the unfortunate victims.

      All that said, I do like your idea in your final paragraph. If the government is saving funds by not sending a team/sport, then those funds MUST go to continuing development of that team/sport. If this system works, it will be the perfect balance/solution. But will it work? Will the funds actually get there?

      Thanks for your comment and I hope you keep following my work!