FIERY JWALA READY FOR WAR
Top doubles player wins Round I against an autocratic federation. But she knows the fight has only just begun.
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.
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.”