The growing rift between the Rowing Federation of India(RFI) and the Army Rowing Node (ARN) has just one casualty, the sport itself. With increasing reports of widespread discontent between the two organisations doing the rounds, it is quite obvious that the general performance of India in rowing is at a high risk. Even more in the line of fire are potential gold medallists who, if honed properly, might go down as prominent names associated with the sport.
For a long time, the Army has been one of the principle contributors to the Rowing sector, with a majority of the international events culminating in medals for the servicemen. The most recent success story is that of Dattu Bhokanal. After finishing thirteenth in his event at the Olympics, Bhokanal was hailed by many as the next big thing for Indian Rowing. But now, his continued participation in Indian events may be at a risk.
The presence of conflicting and equally strong voices has previously spelt disaster for many a sport in the country. The classic example of this is Hockey. From being considered as one of the superpowers of the sport, the Hockey scenario in India was reduced to a mere shadow of itself when the ugly confrontation between the Indian Hockey Federation and Hockey India started to brew. Stabilising the condition and quality of Indian hockey took a long time, as was inevitable. Will Rowing go down the same path?
70 medals in the Asian Championships so far is not a feat to ignored. The members of the service team have performed exceedingly well when it came to representing the country. Perhaps this is the reason why a lot of former servicemen feel belittled by the recent decisions of the RFI. For its part, the RFI, the official autonomous body in charge of the sport in the country, has denied any sort of rift with the army. Speaking to Sports Possible, Girish J Phadnis, the Secretary General of RFI said, “As far as RFI is concerned, there is no contention. All we want is maximum participation. The more the participation, the more the chances of a medal.”
For the past two years, the Servicemen Team has given the RFI organised National Camps a miss- a fact that has not gone down too well with the Federation. In their own words, no official explanation was given to the Federation for failing to attend the Camps earlier this year. Previously, the RFI President Rajlaxmi Singh Deo has been quoted by various tabloids about the necessity of attending the camp if one is to be considered for selection. This means that, if these regulations hold, for the first time in 15 years, there won’t be a single Army rower in the Asian Championships team that India will send.
Predictably, there is quite a lot of ire towards the RFI brewing within the opposing camp. “The major problem in India with sports is with the federations. The Federations control the sports,” says Major General Amin Naik. In an ongoing web-series produced by Paper Weight Entertainment, former Indian rower and Arjuna Awardee in the year 1985, Naik highlights the disadvantages of the monopoly that government funded autonomous institutes like the RFI post. “We need to have Olympic sports athletes train anywhere they want to be trained, under any coach they want to be trained. There is a huge resistance from the Federation for this.”
This point is particularly pertinent. In 2016, it was reported that a six-member team from the ARN was barred from participating in the World Rowing Cup III held in Poland and the World Rowing Tour organised in Austria. The reports were even speculative because it came after Dattu Bhokanal had reportedly written a letter to SAI stating his preference for training with Army appointed coach Rajpaul Mokha. Bhokanal requested that Mokha accompanies him to the competition stint in Miami before training him during the Rio Olympics. The aforementioned letter by Bhokanal was, allegedly, written without the knowledge of the RFI.
Even if this was enough justification to prevent Bhokanal’s participation, no answers have been provided for the disqualification of the rest of the team. According to former Rowing Coach Colonel Praveen Oberoi, the fact that Bhokanal decided to align himself to the Army and the Army appointed coach was the reason for quite a few incidents of mistreatment and intimidation. As per his statements to Sports Possible, the RFI raised objections to Bhokanal’s presence as a chief guest at the All India School Regatta organised in Kolkata earlier this month. The points of contention against Bhokanal were not specified but the RFI allegedly threatened to nullify the affiliations between the Federation and Calcutta Lake Club.
During the 2nd Inter-State Championships held in Kolkata, the Service team was not allowed to contend under its own banner. The RFI had then decreed that service rowers were free to participate as representatives of states. “We relaxed domicile requirements for the states of Uttarakhand, Delhi, Bihar, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. We even extended the deadlines for applications so the servicemen could have sufficient time to enrol,” Phadnis said.
The question as to who should have maximum say in the training schedules of the servicemen is one that has as many viewpoints as the people involved. While RFI argues that participation in National Camps is the sole condition for international participation in events, representatives of the Army think otherwise.
“The state of the RFI National Camps is enough proof of their continuous degradation of the sport,” Colonel Oberoi said. “The National Camp organised in Bhopal had only 26-28 participants while the Camp in Hyderabad could boast only of 12 participants,” he said.
“The RFI has a problem with International coaches. Rather no international coach would agree to train the team in the current conditions. The condition of the lake in Hyderabad is not conducive to training at all,” he added.
What, then, is the solution? On being asked about the hopes of reaching a consensus, Girish Phadnis, himself a retired rower, had a positive take. “There has been quite a few committee sessions where the Servicemen have been urged to work with us. We do not want to be one of those organisations who work without consulting anybody. The Army has contributed a lot to the sport. There is no doubt about that.”
Colonel Oberoi, who has been retained by the RFI in the capacity of a consultant, remains slightly less flexible on the matter. “I am writing a letter to the Sports Secretary of India. Every time I have approached the RFI, I have been rebuffed,” he said.
“India has an Olympic medal hope in Dattu Bhokanal. If he does not get the respect and nurture he deserves, the question as to why India is not doing well at the Games is completely pointless. The RFI needs to have a vision, a goal for further development. That is missing,” he added.
On a similar note, Maj. Gen Amin Naik stresses the importance that athlete independence holds for their respective performances. “The Federation says that until they have given him a coach to train with, the individual will not be considered for selection. Thus, we lose. Their coaching patterns and habit will change and their performance will drop. What do we want? Do we want India to win a medal or the Federations?”
As Col. Oberoi rightly points out, the ones who suffer the most are the rowers. The prospects for the Asian Championships, to be held in the first week of September, already stand to be affected. After a historic standing of 13th in the Singles Sculls event in the 2016 Olympics, there is a looming doubt as to whether India can secure any sort of standing in the future in these esteemed competitions.