Female badminton champion battles badminton bureaucracy in ongoing court battle

One of the Maldives’ most successful female badminton players is battling the country’s Badminton Association in court claiming she was dismissed for unspecified disciplinary reasons.

Neela Ahmed Najeeb, formerly the only female badminton player on the national team, holds a string of championship medals and several international competitions to her credit. Najeeb said that her abilities meant she could play against men during training sessions “and even beat a few of the good players, enough to compete with them.”

She claims the Association has sought to obstruct her from playing the sport ever since it sent her home from a competition in Sri Lanka in 2006 for allegedly smoking a cigarette.

In May last year, the 25 year-old was suspended from the Association altogether after clashing with her Indonesian coach, whom she alleged attempted to make her run for four hours in punishment for missing a training session – half an hour short of the average marathon.

“I had just started training again and I was not even physically fit,” she says. “I missed practice one morning and the coach told me to run for two hours, but I couldn’t do it – I’ve been in the national team for eight years and we’ve never had to do anything like that before. I ran for 30-45 minutes but I could not run anymore.”

The coach, she said, “didn’t like it, and said I could not join the training unless I ran for another 1.5 hours. I didn’t make it a problem.”

However, Najeeb said that, “a few days later, I missed another training session because of my work, and the next day [the coach] asked me to run for two hours again. I could only do 30-40 minutes, and he said that because I had only run 30-40 minutes the last time, I now had to run three hours.”

Najeeb says she took the matter to the Badminton Association, explaining she did not feel she was capable of running the three hours and was afraid of injuring herself early in the training. But she claimed they sided with the coach, “reasoning that he had a degree in Physical Education.”

“The last time I went to training I said I would run 30-40 minutes, but he said no, now I had to run for four hours.”

“I couldn’t believe it. I told him that was impossible. He became angry and said I was useless, and some things that really hurt me. He asked me to leave the stadium, and made a complaint about my behaviour, and filed a disciplinary case,” Najeeb says.

The next day, according to Najeeb, the Badminton Association sent her a letter saying she was terminated from the national team.

“They didn’t even talk to me. If they are going to fire a player from the national team, they have to give me a chance to appeal. They didn’t do that. I don’t want to be against them, they should be advising me.”

Najeeb had been selected to travel to Greece on June 10 last year for a youth training session by the International Olympic Committee.

However, athletes attending the training required the backing of their local association – and Najeeb claims the national chairman “said he was not going to give it.”

Instead, Najeeb said she was informed her application was invalid following the disciplinary report filed by a coach four years ago for the alleged smoking of a cigarette while attending the Sri Lankan tournament in 2006. “Which,” she added, “was not true.”

“I think this must be personal – this is not what you do to an athlete. You don’t just terminate them,” Najeeb claimed.

“I think Maldivian players deserve better. If you have a problem with a coach, [sporting associations] are supposed to advise you – but the Badminton Association takes everything personally.”

President of the Badminton Association, Ali Amir, told Minivan News that he was unable to comment on Najeeb’s disciplinary action as the case was pending in court, but did confirm that the Association was defending the case.

A senior badminton player Minivan News spoke to, who requested anonymity, said he felt it was unfair that Najeeb had been obstructed from practising for 4-5 years.

“She was not supposed to smoke [while attending the Sri Lankan tournament in 2006], and she did smoke, and was sent back to Male’. We have to sign an agreement [with the Badminton Association], but there was nothing in it saying that if we smoke we are sent back to Male’.”

“After that she was unable to play on the national team for two years. Eventually she was allowed a new coach, but then she was suspended again in May last year.”

“It’s a big loss for her,” he added, speculating that “there is something going on between [Najeeb] and the Badminton Association. I have no idea what.”

“She can’t even play alone – if anyone from the Association sees her in the stadium, they call the guards to take her out. The Association is doing this, not the players.”

The new coach’s running regime was “very ruthless”, he claimed. “If we do not come to the morning session we have to run 1-2 hours that night and lose time training. It’s useless.”

Najeeb said she “will not quit playing a sport I love”, but confirmed that she has been escorted from the stadium “because I don’t have an association membership card. It is really frustrating.”

Najeeb and the lawyer representing her in the case, Mizna Shareef of Shah, Hussein & Co, allege that her suspension contradicts the termination procedure of the Constitution of the Badminton Association as she was not given a chance to defend herself.

“The Association unfairly and quite harshly terminated Neela without establishing adequate cause and without giving Neela the opportunity to defend herself,” Shareef told Minivan News. She added that outside the Association’s own regulations “there are no applicable laws covering this type of situation.”

The case was lodged in May this year but despite having three hearings, Shareef claimed “the Badminton Association has stalled the case by appearing in court without having prepared their statements.”

“The longer this case gets delayed, the longer Neela suffers without being served justice. At this point, there is no certainty as to when the case would end,” Shareef said.

“Neela,” she added, “has personally experienced gender discrimination where the Association has held a different set of disciplinary standards for its male players. If we are successful in getting a judgement in Neela’s favour, it would definitely encourage more woman players to play the sport at a professional level, without fear of discrimination and unfair treatment.”

Najeeb, for her part, describes the time she has been away from badminton as “one of the most difficult times in my life”, and that if she is allowed to continue playing on the national team, “I have faith I can achieve more for my country.”

“I resigned from my job to make the training sessions, but they just took their decision [to terminate me] without thinking. They are misusing their power. For me badminton is my life, and they’ve taken it away from me – twice.”