This past weekend was supposed to be full of celebration and anticipation for organisers of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Saturday (July 27) marked three years to go until the start of the Games. To coincide with the milestone, the Organising Committee unveiled its logo and held an event featuring live music and the chance to try Commonwealth cuisine in the city.
The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) chose a rather different way to recognise the three-year countdown.
From the IOA’s headquarters in New Delhi, some 4,200 miles away, President Narinder Batra decided to send a letter which could have sizeable ramifications for the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) itself.
In the letter, Batra effectively offered his backing to an Indian boycott of the Games in protest at the omission of shooting – a sport India happens to be rather successful in – from the programme, representing an escalation in a row which has been bubbling under the surface for the best part of 18 months.
The possibility of India not sending any athletes to the 2022 Games was first raised by National Rifle Association of India President Raninder Singh in April of last year.
Singh initially met resistance from the IOA and Batra. “His anguish is justified, but to ask for a boycott of the Games because an optional discipline is not included is far-fetched,” the IOA President said at the time.
Fast forward to the present day and Batra’s stance has shifted considerably, from one of dismissal to active approval.
While not all of the reasons behind his and the IOA’s significant volte-face are clear – save for shooting’s omission from Birmingham 2022 only being formally confirmed by the CGF in recent weeks – what is apparent is that there is more to India’s boycott threat than the mere exclusion of shooting.
After all, shooting is an optional sport and therefore does not have a guaranteed place on the Commonwealth Games programme. Yes, it has featured at every Games since Kingston 1966, with the exception of Edinburgh 1970, but until it becomes part of the core list, its inclusion will remain up to the Organising Committee.
It is also worth mentioning here that, according to the CGF, the sport would have been included at Birmingham 2022 had the International Shooting Sport Federation compromised on the amount of events.
India boycotting an event which has delivered the country plenty of success in the past in protest at the omission of a single sport makes little sense and borders on the ludicrous.
At a fundamental level, it is unfair on athletes in the 19 sports which have made it on to the Birmingham 2022 programme. Why should a wrestler, swimmer or 400 metres runner miss out on their Commonwealth Games dream because the IOA has thrown its toys out of its pram?
Why should a beach volleyball player lose the opportunity to compete because of IOA politics?
What has been forgotten among the recent Indian bluster is the fact that women’s cricket will be one of those 19 sports.
The inclusion of the country’s favourite sport not only shows how the CGF are willing to accommodate the wishes of the Commonwealth’s largest nation – who lobbied particularly hard for it to be on the programme – but also provides India with a unique opportunity to grow the women’s game.
Just think what an Indian Commonwealth Games gold medal would do for women’s cricket and for the sport in general. It is a chance the IOA would be foolish to refuse.
In a more general sense, an Indian boycott would be counter-productive and self-defeating as Batra has been particularly vocal in recent weeks on the need for the country to win more Olympic medals to boost its bid for the 2032 Summer Games.
The IOA President believes the country has a greater chance of securing hosting rights if it achieves more success at the Games and exposure at a major event, such as the Commonwealth Games, can only be beneficial to the country’s athletes and would be a helpful tool in Batra’s medal plan.
Opinion on the boycott suggestion appears divided in India, with perhaps a slight lean towards being in favour, but the voice of reason on the subject came from Olympic shooting gold medallist Abhinav Bindra on Twitter yesterday.
“Boycotts don't win you influence,” Bindra, a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, said. “They just make you irrelevant and punish other athletes.
"It would be far better if IOA did a campaign to load the Commonwealth Games committees with their people and allies and push for the inclusion of shooting on to the core list of sports for the future.”
Bindra’s proposal has been made more difficult by the IOA pulling its secretary general Rajeev Mehta from the running for regional vice-president at the CGF as part of its boycott of the General Assembly.
Officials from the CGF may feel they have dodged a bullet there as Mehta is a controversial figure and was arrested for assault during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. He did not face charges.
Bindra was channelling his inner Thomas Bach with his comments as the IOC President has spoken out on numerous occasions against boycotts in sport, largely of his frustration at being on the receiving end of one when West Germany refused to go to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
One wonders what the IOC President thinks of one of his members making moves towards a boycott, which Bach described in 2015 as “simply a form of discrimination”.
Of course, the IOC is not alone in having to deal with countries declining to attend its flagship event for political reasons and it is an issue which is very familiar to the CGF.
A total of 32 countries, including India, boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in a show of defiance against Margaret Thatcher’s Government continuing its sporting relationship with South Africa during apartheid.
The dispute plunged the event into crisis and there were even suggestions the Games might have been cancelled before it went ahead without the presence of more than half of the Commonwealth nations.
The vast majority of these countries were from Africa and the Caribbean, one of which was Bermuda, despite the team getting the all clear to compete mere hours before the Opening Ceremony. Athletes raced to the stadium and marched in the parade only for the Bermuda Olympic Association to reverse its decision, even after some of its athletes had participated.
“No purpose is served by the boycott. It is a protest against Mrs Thatcher's policy on sanctions on South Africa,” Games chairman Robert Maxwell said at the time.
“But these are not Mrs Thatcher's Games. They are the Games of more than 50 nations, bound together only by history and friendship.”
It is a message the IOA might want to take notice of; Birmingham 2022 is not India’s Games and the event will continue with or without Indian athletes.