Listen carefully and you will recognise some familiar sounds that suggest a multi-discipline sports event is around the corner. Delayed selections, disgruntled athletes, ministry officials sending out warnings, Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials making powerful statements, blame games and delayed visas, leading to changed travel plans.
All of these now combine to indicate that the Commonwealth Games are nearly upon us. If, instead of discussing athletes prospects in the first of the two major multi-discipline events of the year, we have to discuss delays in visa processing and the accompanying uncertainty, we are in pretty familiar territory.
Yet, the last thing an athlete wants in the run up to a major international competition is stress on account of delays in securing a travel visa and therefore in reaching the venue. Yet, even if we are familiar with such stories time and again, at least a few Indian athletes and coaches are forced to face disappointment every time.
The ensuing Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, appears no different. And the reasons are not far to seek. The temptation to blame “cumbersome visa processes” must be resisted, more so since Australia has made it clear that everyone in the Games Family – athletes, coaches, support staff, officials, administrators, media personnel – would be granted visas without hassle.
As early as in October 2017, visa rules figured prominently in the Chefs de Mission conference in Surfers Paradise in Gold Coast. Commonwealth Games Federation president Louise Martin said they were worried about athletes pulling out because the visa and accreditation system had changed, needing each individual to fill a form online.
The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation chief executive Mark Peters said the tightening of visa conditions was justified by health and national security issues. He pointed out to the Chefs de Mission that the Australian government was only responding to what was happening internationally.
Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection was quick to point out that the suggestion that each athlete had to apply individually was not correct. It said that visa applications may be lodged in bulk by the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation or by individual nations or territory organising committees on behalf of the athletes.
The Australian Department of Home Affairs website is clear. “You can apply under the Australian Government Endorsed Events activity type of this visa if you are: A Commonwealth Games Family Member who is registered for accreditation with the Gold Coast 2018Commonwealth Games Corporation (GOLDOC).
“Following receipt of an application for accreditation from a GOLDOC recognised Responsible Organisation, GOLDOC will contact you regarding your visa application for Commonwealth Games participation,” it says.
The buck truly stops with Indian contingent chef-de-mission Vikram Singh Sisodia, IOA joint secretary and president of the Chattisgarh State Tennis Association, and his team officials Namdev Shirgaonkar (modern pentathlon), Ajay Narang (sailing) and VA Shiyad (Andaman and Nicobar Olympic Association).
The choice of officials may be a result of the IOA executive showing its gratitude to its constituency in the wake of the elections in December last year. How else can anyone explain the choice of officials from tennis, modern pentathlon and sailing which are not part of the Commonwealth Games programme in Gold Coast?
Even if one concedes that their disciplines not being part of the Gold Coast 2018 programme should not disqualify such officials, their inexperience in handling responsibility of great import should have been taken in account when picking this team.
With the IOA being the single point of contact – “Post office” as one of its anonymous officials branded it not too long ago – it was its responsibility to ensure that all documentation and the necessary work would be processed without delays. It was its responsibility to make the National Sports Federations understand that delays reflect poorly on IOA as well.
Even in the present instance, IOA officials are ready to point out how some federations delayed selection of their squads while others did not ensure that the application process was diligently followed in every instance. Simple things like uploading digital photographs and travel plans appeared to have left several forms incomplete, leading to delays.
The sooner IOA shed its “Post Office” approach to its functions and starts playing a more proactive role in the nation’s sport, especially in the run up to such multi-discipline events, the better it will be for India’s athletes. They will not need to deal with the additional stress of having to wait for visas to arrive.
Having said that, since they were aware that Sisodia and his team were perhaps ill-equipped to meet such challenges, it was also up to the National Sports Federations to each appoint a point person who would handle such logistical issues. It should have been the simplest of tasks for each of the Federations to ensure all this was achieved without fuss.
More importantly, for some reason or the other, the athletics, basketball and cycling federations seem to have delayed the final selections till well after the specified last date. It would appear that the Australian side has been more than fair in processing accreditation and visa requests raised as recently as the first week of this month.