No end in sight to volleyball star Tom Joseph’s misery as Arjuna award remains elusive

Tom Joseph(L)

Tom Joseph(L)

Picture this: a man has dedicated most of his life to a ‘backward’ sport (read anything other than cricket) and relentlessly puts himself through the rigours of trying to make it big. And yet, when it comes to receiving recognition for his efforts, he literally has to beg for it. Sounds familiar?

Meet Tom Joseph, the face of Indian volleyball and a lynchpin in the sport for the past 15 years, who was recently dropped from the list of Arjuna awardees.

As is ‘applying’ for an award wasn’t demeaning enough, not being considered for the honour even after applying eight years in a row is an even bigger insult.

Joseph’s services have been recorded by every newspaper available on the stands, and his achievements are far greater than those of many of the poster boys of Indian cricket who were recently feted by the sports ministry with the prestigious Arjuna award.

“I have applied for the award for the past eight years and every time they (selection committee) remove my name at the last minute,” expressed a disheartened Joseph who spoke to Sportskeeda in a telephonic interview.

How odd is it that an athlete has to apply for an award that is a mark of recognition, of ‘honour’ for his achievements? Shouldn’t the jury do its own homework to find out who did well enough the previous year to deserve an award? If Joseph is hoping for the process to change, he’s in for a disappointment. Nisha Millet, an Olympic-level former swimmer who was on the Arjuna awards panel in the year 2011 and the Dronacharya awards panel in 2008-09, justified the ‘application’ practice in a chat with this Sportskeeda correspondent:

“There are so many sports and honestly way too many athletes competing. My only concern is that all applications come through the federation. Now if a deserving candidate has an on-going tussle with the federation, then they might not even forward his/ her application to the ministry. The federations are corrupt and there is every possibility of them blocking athletes from getting their dues.”

It seems like there’s no place to run for Indian athletes.

Joseph is from Kerala and his maiden appearance in the sport came way back in 1999, when he was selected as a member of the national team that went on to win gold at the SAF Games in Kathmandu. He has led the national team in numerous international tournaments including the Rashid International Volleyball Tournament in Dubai where the team won a gold medal in 2000.

Joseph also featured in the medal-winning outings at the 2004 and 2006 SAF Games. Although he was dropped from the national team in 2007, he came back strongly at the 2009 World Cup qualifying round in Tehran. His form failed to remain consistent, though, which led to him being dropped again later that year. But Joseph came back with a vengeance yet again, being named the best player in the 2011 Senior Nationals at Raipur, consequently ensuring his participation in the country’s first ever Olympic qualification tourney in Germany, in June 2012.

To this day, coaches and players from opponent countries never fail to acknowledge his performance after every game he plays for India, irrespective of whether he is on the winning side or the losing one.

Joseph’s stupendous talent and proven stature as a team player earned him respect at a very early age, but a national award has always remained elusive.

volleyball stock

What hurts Joseph more is the fact that cricketers are honoured ahead of ‘other’ team events; in many cases volleyball players are vying for a medal on the basis of their play against over 100 participating nations as opposed to cricket, which is played by not more than 11 teams.

“See, cricketers don’t even play for India. They play for BCCI. Will they continue to dedicate their lives (to the sport) if BCCI stopped paying them for every match they play?” he questions, almost crying out to the government to recognize sportsmen from other team games.

What is the criterion for selecting an Arjuna awardee? Is there any preference given to popular sports? Apparently, there is. Millet went on to say,

“The popularity of the sports is taken into consideration. For example, badminton has received tremendous following in the past four-five years. So in that case, a big performance by a shuttler in an important international event would weigh more than someone who has won a world championship medal in a sport like judo or skating.”

But is any special treatment given to cricket? A cricketer is chosen for the year every single year. But Millet vehemently denies any such bias.

“Cricket isn’t given any additional importance by the committee. In fact, most of the panel members are from a variety of sports which do not include cricket, hence there is no question of lobbying for cricketers. Only their World Cup performance is considered and we don’t pay attention to their tri-series, test series etc.”

But there apparently IS a bias when it comes to the ‘traditional’ sports of the country. “Traditional sports in our country would be given utmost importance. Like hockey, boxing, athletics, football, wrestling, badminton”, admits Millet.

Sadly, not only does volleyball fail to qualify as a ‘traditional’ sport, the high point for India in the game came way back in 1986, when the country won a medal in the Seoul Asian Games. Over the past decade or so, there hasn’t been any remarkable feat in the sport, apart from a few good outings at the Asian-level events, which is perhaps the reason the national award selection committee repeatedly chooses other sportsmen over volleyball players.

The last time a player from volleyball was awarded the Arjuna was in 2011, when Sanjay Kumar Phogat was felicitated. In 2010, K.J. Kapil Dev was given the award.

“As far as our team is considered, we have a very good side; the only thing lacking is international exposure. We don’t play enough international tournaments. Like in this year, so far we have played only two events outside the country. So where is the question of India making a mark in international level?” Joseph bemoans.

“We are extremely good in Indian conditions and here we play really well but are not able to translate that to wins when we go abroad, and that is mainly because of lack of experience.”

That, according to Millet, is another cause for being disregarded. “The most important aspect for the panel is to see if the person has represented the country at the world level and how consistent he or she has been over the past two, three years,” she stresses.

But doesn’t the fact that Joseph has been the ‘face’ of volleyball for over a decade count for anything? Doesn’t the fact that he is so popular and well-respected in the global volleyball fraternity have any value? Not much, according to Millet.

“That does not matter. I may have been the queen of Indian swimming and remained a national champion for two decades, (but) I would not have been considered for the Arjuna award if not for my qualifying for the Sydney Olympics. In the past five years, the panel has become stringent in picking the awardees, and they do not consider even the Asian Championships, age-group competitions, or even the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games.”

Then there is the matter of ‘lobbying’ for the award, and influential athletes getting preference over less well-connected ones. The recent controversy over the final list of awardees seemed like a damning indictment over the transparency, or otherwise, of the whole process. But Millet rubbishes any such fears:

“The process of selecting a national awardee is very transparent and all the panel members are very outspoken and are blunt in giving their opinion on each and every athlete who is shortlisted. There is profuse discussion over each and every athlete and we argue whether he/she is deserving. Even the ministry does not influence us in changing our mind. The head of the panel, however, always has the final say and gives the final nod to the list. There can’t be last minute additions to or subtractions from the list; the majority (of panel members) have to be in favour of giving the award to a particular athlete.”

While the extent of the role that ‘influence’ plays in selection of the awardees is debatable, what can’t be denied is that the lesser-known sports invariably get the short end of the stick when it comes to attracting the attention of the jury members. It is evident that it is very easy for an eligible player to miss out on the award simply because his or her team has no discernible international presence. But whether the respective federations are giving the athletes enough support to take part in international events is conveniently ignored.

Shouldn’t there be a clear distinction between selecting the awardees from individual sports and team sports? Should an individual’s brilliance in a team sport be given so little importance? Doesn’t the Arjuna awards panel realize that to this day, 16 years since his debut, Tom Joseph remains one of the few bright spots in Indian volleyball? Isn’t it amply clear that Joseph is thoroughly deserving of the national award?

Ther are too many questions here and not enough answers.

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