Liam Morgan

Back in January of last year, a letter written by veteran Irish hockey official David Balbirnie landed on the desk of Narinder Batra.

Balbirnie urged Batra to choose between the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) following his election as head of the latter body the previous December.

The Irishman, a defeated candidate in the November 2016 vote which elevated Batra to the top job at the FIH, warned it would be difficult for Batra to run both organisations effectively and said he was not the only one who harboured such concerns.

"He who follows two hares catches neither," Balbirnie wrote.

While Balbirnie's main concern centred on the "leadership and good governance" of the FIH under Batra after he assumed the IOA Presidency, he saw one another of his fears realised last week - and rather publicly to boot.

The Irishman was not the only one to foresee a potential conflict of interest, and quotes Batra gave in an interview with an Indian newspaper provided a near-perfect example.

Batra, whose outspoken nature has landed him in hot water in the past, told the Indian Express that the Commonwealth Games were a "waste of time and money".

Narinder Batra has sparked controversy by claiming the Commonwealth Games are a waste of time and money ©Getty Images
Narinder Batra has sparked controversy by claiming the Commonwealth Games are a waste of time and money ©Getty Images

One senior hockey official was keen to stress that Batra firmly had his IOA hat on during the interview, but it was not lost on some that he also leads a governing body of a sport that has become a popular part of the Commonwealth Games programme since it was first added in 1998.

That point is largely a moot one. The capacity Batra was speaking in is irrelevant; it is about what he said, not who he was speaking on behalf of.

When uttering those ill-judged words in one capacity, he was bound to offend and upset people in another.

It is why I am still struggling to understand why the FIH did not just bury this as soon as it emerged.

The FIH declined to comment on Batra's quotes but chief executive Thierry Weil said there was "no discussion whatsoever at FIH questioning the participation of hockey at the Commonwealth Games".

Rather than not commenting on what Batra said, would it not have been better to say something along the lines of "we respect his views as an individual but the FIH does not share that opinion"?

While federations rarely undermine their own President, the silence from other parts of the hockey world, including continental federations, is deafening.

Hockey Australia gave a more expansive statement when asked to respond to Batra. "Hockey Australia consider the Commonwealth Games to be a benchmark tournament in the Australian hockey calendar," chief executive Matt Favier said.

"Hockey Australia supports the purpose and positioning of the Commonwealth Games and we consider it to be an event of significant merit and have no desire to see hockey removed in the future.

"The Commonwealth Games offers a unique multi-sport environment that supports the development of our players, coaches and staff, as well as the development of officials who have aspirations to pursue other world level events and tournaments."

Hockey has featured at every Commonwealth Games since 1998 and has become a staple of the programme ©Getty Images
Hockey has featured at every Commonwealth Games since 1998 and has become a staple of the programme ©Getty Images

Hockey became part of the Commonwealth Games programme in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and has since been granted status as a core sport, meaning it must be included at every edition of the event.

Few would argue it is often one of the highlights of the Games, largely owing to the strong hockey tradition in the Commonwealth and the standard of both the men's and women's tournaments.

At the time of writing, half of the top 10 teams on the FIH men's world rankings, and four on the women's side, are from the Commonwealth.

This is another reason why Batra's comments are mistaken and erroneous. I am almost certain none of the players, coaches or officials who have been part of a hockey competition at the Commonwealth Games believe the event is a waste of time, nor do the droves of people who fork out for tickets to the sport.

Ironically, Batra's home country is among the nations who put considerable resources, including funding, into their pursuit of the Commonwealth Games hockey gold medal - a title which, for the men, has so far remained elusive.

Some may dismiss Batra's quotes, and the subsequent furore they have attracted, as a storm in a teacup.

However, not only are his words irresponsible from someone who should know better, they also highlight the perils of the same person holding two significant roles which could come into direct conflict.

Yes, there are plenty in the Olympic Movement who wear multiple hats, but being part of an organisation or governing body is completely different to leading it.

It is little wonder Batra is one of only three International Federation Presidents who also run their respective National Olympic Committee.

The other two are Turkey's Ugur Erdener and Uruguay's Julio Maglione, head of World Archery and the International Swimming Federation, respectively. Both come from countries whose sporting clout, and population size, is incomparable with that of India.

The IOA President became a member of the IOC earlier this year ©Getty Images
The IOA President became a member of the IOC earlier this year ©Getty Images

Batra's interview, given as India considers a boycott of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, also represents the latest controversy involving the high-ranking official.

It was not too long ago that he was let off with a warning and a fine from his own federation following an angry anti-Pakistan Facebook post, while rumours of financial difficulty for the FIH appear to be gathering pace.

The FIH has denied it is struggling financially, telling insidethegames in a statement that it has "a clear and sound budget plan for the upcoming years".

There are also no suggestions Batra will relinquish either role, although he is up for re-election as FIH President next November.

A view exists within the hockey community that Batra no longer needs the FIH as he has got his wish of becoming a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Interestingly, his membership of the IOC is linked to his function as IOA President and not the FIH, meaning he could feasibly leave hockey's worldwide body while remaining part of the IOC club.

It will be fascinating to see how this develops in the coming weeks and months, with both the Indian boycott of Birmingham 2022 and potential challengers to Batra's position as FIH President worth keeping an eye on.