Vimal  Sankar

Be it a democracy or autocracy, politicians and Government officials are almost unapproachable - in my experience - barring a few exceptions.

Once in power, the humble nature shown before the election vanishes like a fart in the wind.

Roads getting blocked with security convoys travelling at high speeds and disruptions for day-to-day public life is what I have seen growing up.

At the International Boxing Association (IBA) Men's World Boxing Championships in Tashkent, when Uzbekistan's Sports Minister Adkham Ilkhamovich Ikramov attended the event, I witnessed something similar.

The Humo Arena was full of bodyguards, with restricted access on certain entry points and multiple checks on everyone trying to get into the stadium.

Adding to that, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of the country deciding to pay a visit, did not help at all.

From day one, there was multiple requests until the end of the tournament for a chat with Ikramov to understand Uzbekistan’s sporting ambitions - but it never materialised.

Every time I approached the Local Organising Committee, the answer was always the same: "We are waiting to hear back from the Ministry."

Behind the scenes, voters in Uzbekistan approved constitutional changes that will allow Mirziyoyev to rule for another 14 years.

What better way to tell the world that the country is moving on from the dictatorship of Islam Karimov, who died in 2016?   

Nevertheless, it was a learning experience in what is turbulent times for Olympic boxing and, maybe, even Uzbekistan.

Azerbaijan Sports Minister Farid Gayibov, centre, surprised me with his down to earth nature ©European Gymnastics
Azerbaijan Sports Minister Farid Gayibov, centre, surprised me with his down to earth nature ©European Gymnastics

After two weeks of boxing, I came to Baku in Azerbaijan for the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships for more sporting action.

As usual, I had requested for an interview with Farid Gayibov, the Sports Minister of Azerbaijan.

It took only one day for that to be arranged in stark contrast to a few weeks ago.

As the press officer took me to Gayibov, I saw a man, in a sharp suit and glasses, who was sitting in a small chair just like most of us inside the National Gymnastics Arena in Baku, surrounded by Organising Committee members and fans behind them.

Not one security official or check on the way. As he saw me, we shook hands and went to a quieter room to have a chat. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.

Gayibov, also the President of European Gymnastics, spoke about everything from the 2027 Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships that was awarded to Baku to future sporting plans for Azerbaijan.

I did enjoy the off the record conversations more to be honest, but it was certainly a productive 40 minutes.

As he offered me drinks and food, I politely declined. But Gayibov insisted that I join him and some colleagues from National Federations in Europe for dinner.

This time, I accepted with the condition that I had to leave soon to complete my work.

Around 8pm, I reached the restaurant where I met many European Gymnastics National Federation members and Gayibov who were discussing everything sport and sharing some laughs.

After a quick bite, I opened my laptop and started working simultaneously as the others continued.

Just like that, it was midnight and as guests started to slowly head back to their hotels, I realised that I had no transport.

But Gayibov said he will sort it out and asked me to wait.

After a few minutes, he asked me to get into his car and we started the journey.

Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin, left, was more approachable than his Indian counterpart Anurag Thakur, during the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships  ©IBA
Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin, left, was more approachable than his Indian counterpart Anurag Thakur, during the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships ©IBA

From not being allowed to get within 10 metres near Ikramov in Tashkent to traveling with Gayibov in his official car, it was one of those rare full circle moments.

We spoke about a variety of topics, as he explained to me how Baku has changed over the years.

I could see the academic in him as he talked about his Doctorate from the National State University of Physical Education, Sports and Health in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and the sporting side as he told me about running a marathon in the Azeri capital. 

As he dropped me at the hotel, he asked me to let him know when I come back to the city for a holiday.  

Speaking about Sports Ministers, the story would not be complete without mentioning the one from my own country.

As part of the magazine piece that I was supposed to write, I was chasing India's Anurag Thakur for almost one month.

Multiple calls and texts so I could get an official opinion about India's Olympic ambitions after news about the subcontinent’s interest in staging the Games in 2036 emerged.

As you guessed, there was no response from the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party politician or his associates.

My colleague and friend Geoff Berkeley, who travelled to New Delhi for the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, also suffered the same fate.

He told me that approaches for an interview on the opening day was not even listened to.

Thakur, however, spoke to a certain organisation in India and carried on, I was told.

It is not surprising as BJP politicians do what they want. But at least in Geoff's case, Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin, who was also in India, ensured he had plenty of stories.

Here is to all the approachable Sports Ministers around the world.