India snafu at Sochi stings athletes, but little outrage back home

The taint of corruption followed India's Olympic athletes everywhere in Sochi. They were not allowed to enter the Olympic stadium marching under the Indian flag. They were warned the national anthem would not play if they won any medals.

But the athletes had done nothing wrong. Their administrative exile was the result of ethics violations by the Indian Olympic Association, which had elected two corruption tainted officials as its leaders. Although the IOC executive board reinstated the Indian Olympic body Tuesday, five days after the games began the episode laid bare India's intractable problems with corruption on an international stage.

"The whole world is watching and when the Indian flag doesn't fly, people know that it's because of corruption and it's not a nice image for the country," said luger Shiva Keshavan, India's top winter sports athlete. "Symbolism is really important at the Olympic Games," he told The Associated Press in Sochi.

The bureaucratic bumbling had all the makings of a national scandal, touching on resonant issues of national pride and prestige. But despite the sting of embarrassment for the athletic community, the episode has failed to stir up much outrage among ordinary Indians.

The muted response stems, in part, from India's virtually non-existent presence at the Winter Olympics. It is likely the public sense of embarrassment would have been greater had the controversy broken out before a summer Olympics.

India has never won a medal at the Winter Olympics, and the three Indians competing this year at Sochi — a luger and two skiers — are not household names. Keshavan finished 37th out of 39 competitors in Sunday's men's singles event for luge.

In a country where cricket is the pastime of choice, and where temperatures are scorching for much of the year, winter sports have never gained much traction here.

"People haven't been bothered much about the developments on the Olympics front," said T.S. Sampath, a businessman in New Delhi and an avid sports lover. "It's not been very important for me even though I'm a sports lover because I don't think our performance level is good at the (winter) Olympics."

The quiet reaction to the Olympic snub is starkly different from the national mood ahead of the Commonwealth Games of 2010, which deeply embarrassed India on its own turf. India's preparations for the games were seen as an international humiliation, with filthy athletes' housing, a collapsed pedestrian bridge, security worries, corruption accusations and even an outbreak of dengue fever.

Still, the Olympic snafu was no small matter, particularly as the country tries to showcase its clout as a superpower.

"It's a big disgrace to be suspended because of any reason, more so because we were seen to have tainted officials," said Randhir Singh, a member of the IOC and a former secretary-general of India's national Olympic body. "It's a matter of shame if a country's athletes are unable to participate under the national flag, irrespective of how many medals you're expected to win."

India's performance at the Summer games has also never been stellar. Its maximum haul is six medals at London in 2012, none of them gold. Its only individual gold at any Summer Olympics was won by rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra in Beijing in 2008.

India has won eight gold medals in field hockey, the last time in Moscow in 1980.

India was suspended in December 2012 for electing scandal-tainted Abhay Chautala as president and Lalit Bhanot as secretary-general. Bhanot spent 10 months in jail on corruption charges stemming from the organization of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, while Chautala is charged in a recruitment scam not related to sport. Both men deny any wrongdoing.

The IOC executive board reinstated India Tuesday after the Indian Olympic Association held another election over the weekend to replace Chautala and Bhanot, who were not allowed to contest. This complied with IOC ethics rules barring corruption-tainted officials from running for election, and cleared the way for India's three athletes to compete under their national flag for the rest of the Sochi Games.

Because of the scandal, the athletes entered the games under the Olympic flag and wearing the white uniforms of independent competitors.

It is the first time in history that a suspension of a national Olympic body has been lifted during the games, the IOC said.

The quick resolution of the dispute was largely because neither the Indians nor the IOC wanted India to carry the stain ahead of the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, which are scheduled to be held between July and September this year.

India does relatively well at these two events, and it would have been a black mark on the games themselves had a major country participated while continuing to be in disgrace.

The IOC reinstatement came too late for Keshavan, who competed as an independent athlete Sunday. But cross-country skier Nadeem Iqbal and slalom skier Hamanshu Thakur can now represent India in upcoming races.

Although India is now back in the fold, not everyone is satisfied.

Rahul Mehra, an Indian lawyer and sports activist, said there should have been more national outrage. The weekend ballot, he says, resulted only in "a change of face" in the Indian Olympic body which will do no good to Indian sport.

"These are all proxies of the Bhanots and the Chautalas," said Mehra, who has fought several court cases in Indian courts in a bid to change the running of sport. "These are fiefdoms that have been distributed at the cost of Indians."

He said he was not happy that the IOC welcomed India back to the fold so eagerly.

"This is a cruel joke," he said. "This is a shame."