FIERY JWALA READY FOR WAR

Top dou­bles player wins Round I against an au­to­cratic fed­er­a­tion. But she knows the fight has only just be­gun.

India Today - - SPORT - Amar­nath K. Menon Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter@ Amar­nathK­Menon

There is hardly a time when Jwala Gutta, In­dia’s best­known bad­minton dou­bles player, is not in the eye of a storm. The 30-year-old daugh­ter of an In­dian fa­ther and Chi­nese mother jokes that it is per­haps in her genes to chal­lenge es­tab­lished norms.

Feisty as ever, Jwala is once again bat­tling the sys­tem in a des­per­ate bid to save her ca­reer af­ter a Bad­minton As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia ( BAI) dis­ci­plinary com­mit­tee rec­om­mended mid­way through its in­ves­ti­ga­tion that the shut­tler be banned for life for al­leged mis­con­duct dur­ing the in­au­gu­ral In­dian Bad­minton League ( IBL) in Au­gust.

On Oc­to­ber 10, a day af­ter the rec­om­men­da­tion, the Delhi High Court or­dered that the ban im­posed on Jwala be over­turned, at least un­til the com­mit­tee com­pletes its in­quiry.

Sev­eral top play­ers, who had raged against the BAI and its au­to­cratic Pres­i­dent Akhilesh Das Gupta for the “overtly harsh” and “ridicu­lous” de­ci­sion, have sup­ported the court’s in­ter­ven­tion, which is be­ing hailed as a ma­jor vic­tory for player power. But Jwala knows the war has just be­gun.

“I have won only a bat­tle. I have to win the war but they will try to bring me down. I will fight for the good of bad­minton till the very end,” she tells IN­DIA TO­DAY. “I have no idea what it is that I have done which is so bad, or why I am be­ing made to go through this nasty ex­pe­ri­ence. Per­haps I’ve not sat­is­fied the egos of those in charge of bad­minton in the coun­try.”

Jwala and her part­ner Ash­wini Pon­nappa are the only pair to win a medal for In­dia at the World Bad­minton Cham­pi­onships. The two had spo­ken out in July be­cause their base price had been re­duced by half, from $50,000 to $25,000, on the eve of the player auc­tion for the in­au­gu­ral fran­chise-based IBL. Jwala had been told that though she had the sta­tus of be­ing an ‘icon’ player, dou­bles spe­cial­ists could not be given a high price tag. “It is dis­gust­ing... this is not the way to start a new ven­ture,” Jwala had said then.

BAI kept quiet at that time. But Jwala was tar­geted for an in­ci­dent dur­ing an IBL tie on Au­gust 25 when her team, Delhi Smash­ers, threat­ened to pull out against Banga Beats over the last-minute re­place­ment of in­jured sin­gles player Hu Yun of Hong Kong with Den­mark’s Jan Jor­gensen. The match was de­layed by 30 min­utes be­fore the mat­ter was re­solved and the tie al­lowed to con­tinue. Jwala, who was at the fore­front of the ar­gu­ments with the of­fi­cials as a se­nior player of the team, was sin­gled out and served a 14-day show­cause no­tice by the fed­er­a­tion.

Then, on Oc­to­ber 9, while the probe was still un­der­way, the fed­er­a­tion’s three-mem­ber dis­ci­plinary panel rec­om­mended that she be banned for life. But the com­mit­tee placed a caveat that the BAI chief could con­sider re­lax­ing the ban “to an ex­tent deemed fit by him on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds” if Jwala agreed to ten­der an un­con­di­tional apol­ogy.

Jwala, who re­fused to give in to th­ese strong-arm tac­tics or pan­der to the ego of the fed­er­a­tion, moved court, where BAI al­leged that her per­form-

Why am I be­ing made to go through this nasty ex­pe­ri­ence? Per­haps I’ve not sat­is­fied the egos of those in charge of bad­minton in the coun­try.

JWALA GUTTA,

Ace bad­minton player

ance had been be­low par dur­ing the past three years. But her plea was ac­cepted by Jus­tice V.K. Jain, who passed a stay or­der and rep­ri­manded the fed­er­a­tion for tar­get­ing her with­out a proper in­quiry.

“It is funny how it all played out,” Jwala says. “If I have com­mit­ted a crime that de­serves a life ban, why let me go with just an apol­ogy?” A life ban in usu­ally or­dered for se­ri­ous of­fences such as dop­ing and match fix­ing.

For­mer na­tional coach Vimal Ku­mar says the high court or­der has shown In­dian bad­minton in bad light. Another for­mer na­tional coach S.M. Arif, from whom Jwala learnt ba­sics of the game when she was 10 years old, was even harsher. “The em­pha­sis on her apol­ogy rather than the mis­con­duct at­trib­uted to her shows clearly that the BAI has gone off the rails,” he says.

Jwala is up­set that ace shut­tler and cur­rent chief coach Pul­lela Gopic­hand has cho­sen not to speak out in her sup­port. She even goes to the ex­tent of sug­gest­ing that he is part of the con­spir­acy to tar­get her. “It is sad that he does not want to take a stand. There is no dou­bles pair to re­place Ash­wini Pon­nappa and me in the coun­try. Is he, as the chief coach, will­ing to let go of us and lose a chance to win a medal for the na­tion?” she asks.

Jwala’s prob­lem with Gopic­hand is long-run­ning. She feels he hasn’t rated her ever since he took over as na­tional coach in 2006. “Back then, I was just 23 and the cur­rent na­tional cham­pion but was dropped from the team with­out any proper ex­pla­na­tion. He said I was too old to play and had to make way for ju­niors,” she says, adding, “Later, when I turned 26, he said that play­ers can­not per­form af­ter cross­ing 25. Don’t for­get that he won the All-Eng­land ti­tle when he was 29 years old. I let it pass.”

In­de­pen­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Clean Sports In­dia, which cam­paigns against cor­rup­tion in sport and asks for struc­tural changes in the gov­er­nance of sport, are stand­ing firmly be­hind Jwala. “The fun­da­men­tals of sport are all about fair­ness. It is vi­ti­ated in this case. This is a pre­med­i­tated ven­detta against a player of in­ter­na­tional stand­ing. Per­haps the worst ex­am­ple of how sports or­gan­i­sa­tions are run like 15th cen­tury fief­doms,” says BVP Rao, a for­mer sports ad­min­is­tra­tor who is now the na­tional con­venor of Clean Sports In­dia.

Rao hopes things will get bet­ter when the re­vised Na­tional Sports De­vel­op­ment Bill is con­sid­ered and adopted by Par­lia­ment. “Our hope is that it will hap­pen dur­ing the win­ter ses­sion,” says Rao.

The leg­is­la­tion en­vis­ages the cre­ation of three en­ti­ties — an Ap­pel­late Sports Tri­bunal headed by a re­tired chief jus­tice of a high court, a Sports Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, and an Ethics Com­mis­sion. The leg­is­la­tion aims to get sportsper­sons in­volved in na­tional fed­er­a­tions by grant­ing them 25 per cent reser­va­tion in ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tees of all as­so­ci­a­tions gov­ern­ing sports, and also pro­poses a fixed ten­ure for of­fice-bear­ers.

In the mean­time, Jwala be­lieves there will be a fresh push from BAI to tar­get her. “The is­sues I raise are about how the ad­min­is­tra­tion is be­ing run, and how it should be run. Th­ese peo­ple don’t want to hear such things,” she says. “But, rest as­sured, it won’t stop me from speak­ing my mind.”

QA­MAR SIB­TAIN/ www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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