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Monday, January 30, 2023

Wrestling is a big issue in Indian sports.

FeaturedSports NewsWrestling is a big issue in Indian sports.

On December 12, there was much celebration to usher in an athlete-centric age in Indian sports governance. PT Osha was named president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and under a new IOA constitution, a 10-member Athletes’ Commission (AC) was elected for the first time, headed by MC Mary Kom. A month later, as the country’s most decorated wrestlers sit in protest at Jantar Mantar, accusing their federation boss of sexual and psychological harassment, and death threats against his colleagues. Granted, India’s new athletic leadership is left with a swagger.

PT Osha’s Twitter message came 24 hours after Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik made their first statement against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. And when it did, Osha asked the players to “come forward and convey their concerns to us”, and announced that the IOA would “set up a special committee to deal with such situations for swifter action in future”. may arise”.

According to the IOA website, it already has a Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee comprising Sudarshan Pathak, Rani Tiwari, Siddha Tokes and Ashok Dhare. But how the panel is dealing with the issues raised by the wrestlers, and what powers it might use, remains unclear.

But the biggest disappointment to the wrestlers’ protest has been the response of the Athletes’ Commission (AC) and, beyond them, the wider athletic community.

Even as the number of wrestlers protesting on Thursday swelled, the AC — which included several Olympic medalists and legends of their sport — was neither heard nor seen. The fears raised over the reduction of the Electoral College from 42 to 10, with many stories of late-night meetings, now appear to be coming true: that India’s Olympic AC is just a flashy new post office. Which has a powerful sound system that does more than that. Send a token message about athletes’ participation.

The protest by Indian wrestlers is the biggest push by players against the federation’s misrule in a quarter of a century in the country — since the 1997 revolt by top players against the Badminton Association of India. In the time since then, however, Indian sports and indeed athletes have changed and changed. What has remained the same is the mindset of the majority who hold high positions in the Indian sports establishment, and those who favor them.

In the age of social media, the biggest players in the Indian sport have not responded to the scathing allegations of the wrestlers. Never mind appearing on Jantar Mantra, the social media feeds of sports stars outside of wrestling have gone silent.

We do not expect other Federation owners to follow suit. But if the badminton players in Delhi for the Indian Open, for example, had somehow signaled to the wrestlers that they are not alone – it could have sent a powerful message.

Indian sport is riddled with power imbalances, with the federation’s chiefs viewing themselves as landlords and a coterie of lower-ranking officials, coaches and officials – many of whom believe they are not only responsible for their sport. The owner is also the owner of his players. Psychological or physical threats to young athletes to do as they are told to do otherwise, sexist for selection, denied entry to events, ruining their careers, and asking them to touch feet and bow to an official or coach. To expect — who has not heard. This in Indian sports? The allegations against Brijbhushan Sharan Singh are just a clean capsule of an ugly stomach.

Stories of his excesses have been in the news stories before – slapping young wrestlers, some holy men interrupting trials to bless wrestlers, Vinesh and Sonam on Malik after Tokyo for flimsy reasons. Banning (like Sonam asked to get her passport from someone else. WFI office instead of going in person and falling at the feet of the federation). That’s how he deals with all accusations: with a heavy hand.

First denying, then saying only 3% of wrestlers are against him, then accusing an unnamed industrialist of being behind the plot, and then saying he will hang himself if proven guilty.

There is another thread running beneath this story – the political battle between the BJP and the Congress, and even within the BJP itself. But, whatever the motivation, that doesn’t mean the wrestlers’ allegations are fiction. Vinesh’s tearful voice was real, as was the bowed head of the wrestler behind him with his hand on Vinesh’s shoulder.

The problem goes beyond who is in power at what level. Every government, at every level, since 2011 – when the National Sports Code was launched – has the power to de-recognize sports federations that violate standards related to governance or financial irregularities. But governments have chosen not to act because the people under fire are often their own.

The wrestlers have appealed directly to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister and held a midnight meeting with the Sports Minister, showing their helplessness and frustration. Wrestlers know that the people above and below are unlikely to stand by them, and only those in the highest positions in the land can bring down the WFI President. Not a good advertisement for the “transformed” Indian sports system.


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