You can be sure that social media will be abuzz with messages greeting Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, 2004 Olympic silver medallist double trap shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore, on his 49th birthday on Tuesday, 29 January. Not just because he is very active there, but because Indian sport has enjoyed a remarkably good year.
Rathore has ample reason to be pleased that the last 12 months have been good for Indian sport, by and large. From the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast to the Asian Games and the Asian Para Games in Jakarta as well as the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Indian athletes came up with a handsome harvest of medals.
As he steps in to his 50th year, he will be delighted at the evolution of Khelo India Games as a platform on which India’s young athletes compete in conditions akin to international competitions. Having seen the Khelo India School Games in Delhi last year and the Khelo India Youth Games in Pune this month, he will be keen for it to become an integral part of the national sports calendar.
The Journey So Far
In five years, he has transitioned to be a politician – nobody should grudge him that and, in fact, it has helped him be very relevant – but he has done remarkably well to retain the athlete’s heart. It has helped him in his stint in the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports from September 2017, especially when dealing with issues faced by sportspersons around the country.
After some early skirmishes with officials of National Sports Federations, it has been heartening to see him bring all stakeholders together and work for the betterment of Indian sport. Be it the Indian Olympic Association or the NSFs, he has developed excellent working relationships to ensure that the wheel of Indian sport is spinning favourably.
His handling of the crisis precipitated by the revised constitution of the Archery Association of India and the elections held under that statute has been legally sound. The Ministry refused to send an observed to the AAI elections since they were not held under the National Sports Development Code of India 2011.
It is not as if all decisions of the Ministry – always perceived to be the Minister’s decisions – have gone down well. The Ministry’s decision last year to persuade some Government Observers to put in their papers came in for some criticism but it seemed to be erring on the side of caution when it came to potential conflict of interest.
Be that as it may, Rathore has caught the attention of sportspersons and many others in the periphery with innovative online campaigns. He kicked off a #FitnessChallenge in May last and #5MinuteAur on 8 January ahead of the Khelo India Youth Games 2019 in Pune. More than a few have been inspired to share their fitness and sports journeys by such initiatives.
Overcoming Past Inertia
It must be said that the inertia of the past, when sport was never a priority, has been a millstone. It has hindered the pace of progress, if not progress itself, as India seeks to become a sporting nation first and a sporting superpower next. Rathore can take pride from ensuring that the elite athletes have been catered to pretty well in the 16 months that he has been in charge.
It is in paying attention to the needs of the elite athletes and ensuring that the reasonable demands were met without delays that Rathore has won their hearts. The readiness with which he sanctioned financial assistance to former athletes, including ace archer Limba Ram, and a gymnastics coach needing medical treatment drew him much praise as well.
At a very personal level, my own experience with him as the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports has been pleasant. I was nominated as part of the committee that recommended the Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award winners in 2018. Suffice to say that Rathore did not even pass on a message. And to my mind, the recommendations were well received in all quarters.
By all accounts, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports’ field arm, Sports Authority of India, has enjoyed such freedom to execute the plans in making India a more sports conscious nation. Of course, he has demanded accountability all the time, reminding officials that the welfare of the athlete is of paramount importance.
There can be no doubt that he has had his ears to the ground, listening very actively on social media as well.
The manner in which the National Anti Doping Agency rushed to put together a status report – terming it highlights of the dope control programme in 2018 – for the Ministry indicates that Rathore was tracking the criticism that NADA was receiving on social media.
Challenges Ahead: NADA, BCCI & Balance
Of course, some of us would have liked him to wet his feet more in terms of overseeing NADA’s choice of athletes to pick for the out of competition tests in the run up to the Asian Games but then he could not be expected to show more than usual interest in the running of India’s dope control programme.
Similarly, he and the Ministry could have dealt with the Board of Control for Cricket in India more firmly when it came to BCCI becoming a NADA signatory and letting it run its dope control programme. It probably tells of the enormous political and commercial clout that the Board enjoys in the country.
Truth to tell, the sports fraternity would have been left wishing that he while he evolves in the political firmament, he would not have to divide his attention between the Ministries of Information and Broadcasting and of Youth Affairs and Sports. Yet, to his credit, he appears to have done the balancing act without reducing his attention to the needs of the sportspersons.