The Games Nations Play: How India Won a Crucial Election At the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships
Table tennis is not India’s sporting mascot. Not that it matters - India has little to show in sport. But in the Commonwealth, India leads.
The 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, held at Cuttack from July 17- 22, saw a dominating performance by India, which won 7 gold medals (a clean sweep), 5 silver medals and 3 bronze medals. The next best performer, England, won 2 silver medals and 3 bronze medals. India won its first women’s team title in a Commonwealth championship.
This makes India a Commonwealth table tennis powerhouse. Strong development has been key- India has hosted this tournament 4 times in the last 12 years, and the third time in succession, after New Delhi (2013) and Surat (2015). Such advocacy has transformed casual sports fans into serious followers, as we saw at Cuttack. Mayuri Chatterjee, who represented Odisha in the national championships, told me after India’s stellar performance, “many kids are doing shadow actions- they are getting into it.”
But there is more. India has learnt to navigate the slippery world of sports diplomacy. Few know that, behind the spectacle of cheery school children filling up the galleries, delegates engaged in intense behind- the- scenes jockeying to elect the new chairman of the Commonwealth Table Tennis Federation. India’s Vivek Kohli defeated England’s Alan Ransome 22- 6. M.P. Singh from India was elected secretary general. The position of president is already held by an Indian, Dushyant Chautala, meaning India has the top three positions on the body.
Jjagwe Robert, chairman of the Uganda Table Tennis Association, was a key player in the lobbying. In a candid conversation with me, he narrated the sequence of events at the vote on July 20. Being the chairman, Ransome had claimed the right to 4 proxy votes, citing past practice. “We told him article 4.5 of the constitution says all nominated voters can carry only 1 proxy vote. The constitution should prevail. We didn’t question this practice (in the past), but now we do,” said Robert, adding that, after some “back and forth,” Ransome relented. The margin was so large that, even with 3 extra proxy votes, Ransome would still have lost 9- 22.
How did Kohli comfortably pull ahead? Ransome was already struggling to provide a credible plan for the sport. The ever- polite Achanta Sharath Kamal, veteran of India’s table tennis battles, told me about the lack of development and infrequency of tournaments, without any criticism, just disappointment. India steps in to host tournaments so that players improve, he asserted. Funding had dried up, and the Commonwealth Table Tennis Federation was in a wobble, I heard from delegates. These would have been warning signs for Ransome.
Thus, the general drift in management gave Kohli early momentum. But that was not all. Here, the Odisha government deftly stepped in. Showing strategic foresight, it did what works best, providing generous hospitality. Working with the Table Tennis Federation of India opened a credible narrative in aid of Kohli. “I got very broad support. There is a huge opportunity. We are 71 countries- about one third of international members. 31 countries voted in the election. People were looking for change. They got the change,” Kohli told me.
Robert put the matter in detail: “I think the Table Tennis Federation of India have done a great job to get massive, impressive support from their government. The officials, even the players, are accommodated in five star hotels, which should be the first of its kind, most likely. It means the Table Tennis Federation of India marketed the sport to their government very well. For me, that is almost 110% marks.” Kohli said the South African delegate had told him no country could match India’s hospitality. Clearly, India had created an opportunity to win the election through a public- private partnership, with the government of Odisha in the lead role as the provider of hospitality and infrastructure.
Cuttack hosting an international tournament for the first time (leaving aside cricket at the Barabati Stadium) was novel, though potentially perilous. D.P. Bagchi, chairman emeritus of the Odisha Table Tennis Association, told me that Cyclone Fani had blown away the roof of the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, and a new roof had to be installed. Vishal Dev, secretary in the Department of Sports and Youth Services: “Making the stadium ready for the prestigious event after the severe cyclonic storm Fani was one of the big challenges we faced. Thanks to many state agencies, which worked day and night, everything fell into place.”
After having dealt with Fani, and earlier cyclones, with composure, the Odisha government had enough experience to deliver the tournament within deadlines. We had seen the same sort of intervention after Fani to repair the Kalinga Stadium in the lead- up to a world- level hockey tournament, the FIH Series Finals.
How does the future of table tennis in the Commonwealth look like? Kohli says that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Rwanda have applied for membership of the Commonwealth Table Tennis Federation, and 12 other countries from Oceania have expressed a desire to join.
There is a need to involve sports ministers and national Olympic Committees, put into place a strong coaching and development structure, and find sponsorship, by advertising in English, he asserts. The Sponsorship Committee will work on this, he states.
Cuttack has beaten the odds and delivered a successful tournament. Taking international sport beyond the more storied Bhubaneswar is good. There is symbolism in that the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium is located in the historic Barabati fort. From here, the Eastern Ganga dynasty ruled Kalinga, feuding with and winning against the Bengal sultans, and radiating power and influence beyond the confines of modern Odisha. This makes the stadium a winner’s citadel, symbolically speaking. Perhaps it is fitting that the tournament, held within this very fort, yielded India important victories, in play, and in management.
Such events also open up pathways to the future. First, government officials, even knowing they are not tasked with diplomatic functions, have a clear understanding of what a supportive environment can do for India’s sports diplomacy. For this, we salute the government of Odisha. Alongside, Indian sports officials are becoming deft in the games nations play, reinforcing the notion that sport is never only about sport. In this particular instance, a wise government, an energetic national federation, a candidate passionate about the sport, and helpful compatriots from friendly nations worked in tandem to unseat a rival from an “old” power.
This brings us to the larger picture- the shifting tide of international power and influence. Only, the spectators cheering the dominant Indian team did not clearly grasp the small history they were witnessing.
Who would have thought that a city like Cuttack would become a diplomatic frontier even while it was providing sporting enjoyment? But in our inter- connected world, what appears to be local is also global, and what seems to be just sport is also politics.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the government of Odisha on Sports and is a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.