New Delhi: The athletes reacted with anger but the officialdom chose to weigh its words before responding to Indian Olympic Association (IOA) chief Narinder Batra's assertion that the Commonwealth Games (CWG) is a waste of time and the country should consider a permanent pullout.
Batra, while speaking at an event in Bengaluru on Tuesday, had said the level of competition at the CWG was not particularly high and that India should consider a pullout to improve its own standards.
The statement has context as Batra had earlier called for an Indian boycott of the 2022 CWG in Birmingham over the axing of shooting from the Games programme due to logistical issues. Shooting has been a major contributor to India's CWG tally and the nation stands second, with 134 medals, in the overall count won from the sport.
"It is not acceptable," said one of India's currently most successful table tennis players G Sathiyan, who claimed two silvers and a bronze in the 2018 edition in Gold Coast.
The shooting fraternity chose to sidestep queries on Batra's comment, but others were up front.
Boxing star Vijender Singh, who is the first and only male pugilist with an Olympic medal to his credit, said Batra's statement is heartbreaking as it undermines athletes' hard work.
"It is heartbreaking. By this logic, India should not send teams to invitational tournaments either because the level of competition is not like the Olympics or the World Championship even there," said the boxer who has two silver and a bronze from the three CWGs he competed in.
"Why belittle the athletes' achievements? And in any case, CWG has strong boxing nations such as England and Ireland in fray," he added.
The 2014 Glasgow CWG gold-medallist shuttler Parupalli Kashyap also differed with Batra, who also heads the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
"It is ridiculous to think of boycotting the Commonwealth Games. I don't think the standard is low. I didn't have it easy when I beat all these players during the 2010 edition (when he won bronze) and the 2014 Games," he recalled.
"It is not like we are winning all the gold medals. Even in badminton, there are teams like Malaysia, England who are tough," he added.
In fact, 2010 CWG gold-medallist discus thrower Krishna Poonia said the Commonwealth competition in athletics is stiffer than the Asian Games, which is generally perceived to be tougher by the sporting fraternity.
"For athletics, CWG is world-class, the competition is of higher level than the Asian Games," she said.
A top official from the national federation of a prominent Olympic sport asked whether Batra would deem the competition good enough if shooting is brought back.
"Someone should ask him will the CWG regain significance if shooting is accepted back on the roster. May be he will have a different view to offer," the official said.
"Why deride the athletes who have worked hard for their medals at CWG because you are unhappy about the exclusion of one sport? CWG won't die if India pulls out," he added.
Two-time CWG gold-medallist weightlifter Sathish Sivalingam said a medal at the Games provides job security to a lot of athletes and that shouldn't be taken away.
"I am completely against the pullout. The Commonwealth Games are a big event for us. Medal-winning performances in the CWG bring a lot of incentives like jobs and money etc. So for us, this competition is important," he said.
Former India hockey captain Zafar Iqbal, who was part of the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning team, was surprised by Batra's comment.
"That's a ridiculous statement coming from a man who is holding numerous important positions in national as well as international sports federations," he said.
"Commonwealth Games is the biggest competition after Olympics in terms of participation of countries. Seventy-two countries took part in the last Commonwealth Games. And if you talk about hockey, all top nations like Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain are there," he added.
A more guarded response came from the Wrestling Federation of India. The sport contributes massively to India's medal tally at CWGs and its president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh said the grapplers are eager to continue at the quadrennial showpiece.
"The general view of the wrestling fraternity is that the athletes want to compete, whatever the tournament is," he said.
Similar responses were offered by the national federations of table tennis, squash and swimming, who said they would abide by the government and the IOA's decisions.
But the athletes were more forthcoming.
Archer Rahul Banerjee, a gold-medallist at the 2010 Delhi CWG, said all talk of pullout started only after shooting was excluded and the administrators ought to answer why the competitiveness of the event didn't matter before that.
"If Commonwealth Games were so easy why only a few disciplines like wrestling, shooting and boxing earn India the bulk of medals?" he asked.
"Obviously we can't compare CWG with the Olympics which is above all, even the World Championships. So does that mean we will not value a World Championship medal and won't send a team there?"
But there were also voices who agreed with Batra. Former Archery Association Secretary General Paresh Nath Mukherjee said, "there can't be a bigger truth" than what the IOA chief has dared to say.
'Nothing but waste of money'
"He has hit the nail on the head. Commonwealth Games has no relevance in the Olympics. It has no value and only poor and foolish countries like us make such hype about CWG.
"It's nothing but waste of money," he said.
IOA Treasurer Anandeshwar Pandey, however, begged to differ.
"...in my personal view, every Games, whether it is South Asian Games, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games or Olympics, they have their importance and some of our athletes' future are associated with them," he said.
A top weightlifting federation official also called CWG important.
"The level of Commonwealth Games is better than Asian Games in some sports," he said.