Why were Indians lousy at Lahti? Official blames pay-to-play

With 1.17 billion people, India should be a masters track powerhouse. You’d think. But at Lahti worlds, India won a mere 10 medals. Only one gold (by an M70 hammer thrower). With a handful of exceptions (mainly male sprinters), the 70-member Indian team was a running joke in Finland. I’ve been hesitant to mention this. But now I have an explanation. My source? Jerry D’Souza, secretary-general of the Veterans Athletics Federation of India. In the course of asking about his First International Veterans Athletic Championship set for January 2010, I threw in some queries about Lahti. And Jerry said a competing masters track group, known as MAFI, controlled who India sent to Finland. And talent wasn’t primary; it was money. In other words, if you didn’t grease the right palms, you didn’t go. A shame for a democratic nation and a blot on World Masters Athletics. How bad were Indians in Finland?

Rani Brahma of India was DQ’d in the W55 long hurdles for missing the point.


Kunja Lata Gogoi Konwar took last in the W50 300 hurdles in 1:22.56, while countrywoman Rajam Gopi was DQ’d. In the W70 100,  Tara Chordia was last in 42.78. W50 pole vaulter Bhuvaneswari Ranganathan cleared only 1.30 (4-3 1/4).

And India’s 3K steeplechasers were an embarrassment: M35 Bikash Karar ran 14:28.65, M40 Balaji Rao Pothuraju ran 18:34.41 and M45 William Cary Banka ran 24:53.67. India’s relays included the W50 4×100 — last in 1:30.73 and W55, last in 1:15.15.

The only Indians who impressed me were Amit Khanna, silver medalist in the M35 200 (22.22) and Dinesh Rawat, whose 50.01 took second to Robert Thomas in the M40 400.

Mostly, Indians were bringing up the rear after failing to get into set position properly.

Here’s my Q&A with Jerry:

Masterstrack.com: How many entrants from India do you expect at your January meet? 

Jerry D’Souza: Only selected team consisting 500 men and women will be taking part in the proposed championship.

How many entrants from outside India do you expect?

We expect 200 -300 athletes from abroad.

The info sheet says: “Results of all the track events will be decided on time trial basis except 100 Mtrs & 200 Mtrs. Run from which best 8 performers will be selected for finals.” WMA rules do not permit timed finals and certainly do not advance the top 8 from sprints to finals. (What if one race has a high aiding wind and another has a headwind?) Is this fair?

I will consult my technical experts and come back to you on this question.

What will weather conditions be like in late January?

Night temperature during January at Pune would be 12-16 degrees (54-61 Fahrenheit) and during day 22-24 degrees (72-75).

This year has been very busy — with major masters meets in Finland, Australia and the United States. Why did you choose this date for your first international masters meet?

We had initially planned the championship from 30th October to 1st November 2009. The same is postponed to January as there was widespread H1N1 fever at Pune. Moreover weather conditions during January are very ideal for a good competition. Secondly, Finland WMA meet is already over and Australia World Masters Games would be over in October, 2009. There is a three-month gap from October to January. We have therefore selected the dates in January 2010.

I competed at the WMA world meet in Finland, and I noticed many Indian athletes with poor skills. What is the Veterans Athletic Federation of India doing to improve the quality of its international masters athletes?

The Indian team was sent to Finland by Masters Athletic Federation of India (which doesn’t) have any criteria for selecting the athletes. They work only for monetary gains and not with any interest on athletes or athletics. They select anybody who gives money and therefore you have found (athletes) with poor skills. We have very good athletes in our federation but could not participate at the WMA. We therefore decided to provide them a chance to compete with international athletes by inviting athletes from many countries.

I couldn’t find a Web site for Veterans Athletic Federation of India. Can you provide a link?

Our Web site would be ready and launched in a few days.  

On one site quoting you, I read this: “The federation is now in talks with the government to sponsor silvers who participate in athletics championships.”   What is the status of government sponsorships of masters athletes in your country? Did the government help pay for travel of your Lahti team?

Our federation is in existence for the last 30 years. No one approached Govt. of India for recognition during these years for the reasons best known to them. Moreover, there was a policy of Govt. that one federation for one game. (MAFI) was the governing body in India and they were supposed to look after the welfare of the Masters/Veteran athletes but have done nothing.

Now we have approached the government of India, requesting to treat us fair with MAFI and consider the Veterans Athletic Federation of India as an autonomous body. Government of India is now likely to consider our request and therafter all veteran athletes would be able to gain. Since we have to show our existence, we have to organise good competitions national and International.

Finally: What is your own athletics background? 

I was a high jumper and Mumbai University record holder in 1974. The performance was moderate 1.90 meters as there were no facilities available (such) as now. I have organised two National Championship for Veterans — one in 1998 and the other in 2008 in my city viz. Thane. I have organised 16 state level meets for children of various age groups and for open category and two national level invitation meets. Now we have also started organising prize money national level half marathon and road races championships for veterans and the third edition will be conducted on 14th November 2009.

If it’s true that MAFI expects payoffs to gain entry to worlds, WMA should not deal with it. In fact, according to the Asia Masters Athletics site, Jerry’s group, the Veterans Athletic Federation of India, is listed as the official WMA affiliate.

If high-quality athletes from india were barred by MAFI from attending Lahti because they didn’t ante up to corrupt officials, this is a scandal of the highest order.
Officials of the WMA Asia region need to investigate this.

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October 1, 2009

6 Responses

  1. Tom Phillips - October 1, 2009

    Ken,
    Have a care. If the quote “They select anybody who gives money” just means the athletes pay their own entry, travel and lodging, well, so do we all. I didn’t read it as referring to illicit payments, or corrupt officials. Are you sure that was the intent? Why should the Federation’s secretary-general suddenly turn whistle-blower?
    Sure there were some poorly skilled athletes there. I could give you a list from several countries. Unfair to single out India, I feel. Amit Khanna, to whom you refer, was also bronze medalist in the M35 100m, and was one of the most impressive sprinters in Lahti.
    Good luck to the Indian federation in trying to get parity of esteem for Masters with its national association. If they succeed, I hope they’ll tell us all the secret!
    Tom

  2. Becca Gillespy Peter - October 1, 2009

    Yeah I gotta agree with Tom. I took the interview to mean that only those athletes who could afford the trip got to go. Same situation we have in the US! We’re just blessed to have so many talented athletes who can afford the expensive hobby.

  3. Milan Jamrich - October 2, 2009

    Still against the qualification limits?

  4. Weia Reinboud - October 2, 2009

    Never been.

  5. Francois - October 2, 2009

    I agree with Tom and Becca. I think he meant that they had to pay their own way. I wish the Indian Federation all the best.

  6. peter taylor - October 9, 2009

    Agree with Professor Jamrich and with Weia. Prof. Jamrich knows about human genetics, and he knows about international competition. If you are in the hurdles in a world championship, you should be able to hurdle. Similarly, if you are high jumping at the worlds you should be able to clear the bar at a reasonable height. To date, these have not been requirements.

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