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No end in sight to the wrestling saga

Updated: Mar 2

Senior sports journalist Shantanu Srivastava is Associate Editor, Hindustan Times and an alumnus of the 4th edition of the HPLP. He reflects on the recent turmoil in Indian wrestling, its administration, and its implications for the sport one year after senior wrestlers began their protest


 


Almost exactly a year ago on a sunny January afternoon, four-time World Championships medallist Bajrang Punia, Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, and double World Championships medallist Vinesh Phogat began their sit-in atin New Delhi's Jantar Mantar. Levelling charges of corruption, financial irregularities, and sexual harassment against then Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the wrestlers demanded a complete clean-up of the wrestling body.


The protest ended a week later following a late-night meeting between wrestlers and Minister of Sports sports minister Anurag Thakur, but the issue was far from resolved. Three months later, the elite wrestlers returned to Jantar Mantar to begin the unprecedented sit-in that ended after Delhi Police evicted them on May 28, bringing curtains down on the 36-day protest that garnered mass support and made national headlines. One may be tempted to call the wrestlers a bit too idealistic, even emotional. There's a school of thought that deems them power-hungry and selfish. But what can't perhaps be contested is the fact that a year on since Sakshi, Bajrang, and Vinesh put their careers and reputations on the line, precious nothing has changed in Indian wrestling.


The much-delayed Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) elections, held on December 21, 2023,delivered a landslide win for the Brij Bhushan-backed Sanjay Singh panel who beat Anita Sheoran by a 40-7 margin. Sheoran was propped up by wrestlers and a win would have made her the first-ever woman to lead WFI. Out of the 15 Executive Committee seats, 13 were won by Sanjay's group, while the senior vice-president and secretary-general posts went to Sheoran's panel. It is widely understood that seat sharing was part of the larger compromise formula between wrestlers and WFI, brokered by the sports ministry. But what eventually tilted the scales in the protesting wrestlers' favour were the grotesque celebrations from Brij Bhushan's camp soon after its victory.


Sakshi called time on her career soon after the elections, leaving her wrestling shoes on the table in a deafening statement of defiance and fortitude. The next day, Bajrang left his Padma Shri - the country's fourth highest civilian honour - on Kartavya Path. All this made for terrible optics for the sport, and the ministry, on a Sunday morning, passed orders suspending the WFI. It also asked the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to constitute the ad hoc committee to run the sport.


While Sanjay Singh has rejected the newly formed committee and has vowed to challenge the Ministry in court, the wrestlers have maintained a studied silence. In all this, the only losers are the young wrestlers who have already lost a year to the prevailing confusion. It must be noted that last year, no national championships or national camps were held owing to WFI's suspension.

Within hours of winning the election, Sanjay Singh announced the dates for under-15 and under-20 Nationals in Uttar Pradesh's Gonda, Brij Bhushan's backyard. However, WFI's suspension meant the plans to hold Nationals in December-end were annulled. As things stand now, the ad hoc panel is yet to announce fresh dates, but the damage has already been done. The youngsters who were on the upper limit of the age bracket have become overage for U-15 and U-20 championships.


Hence, it came as little surprise when almost 500 young wrestlers recently protested at Jantar Mantar - where the elite wrestlers had begun their fight for justice - against Bajrang, Sakshi, and Vinesh. Also, it must not be forgotten that this is an Olympic year and wrestling has been India's most successful individual pursuit at the Games with seven medals. Indian wrestlers have returned with at least one Olympic medal in every edition since Beijing 2008, underscoring a working system that miraculously delivers despite its many flaws, and has a robust supply line of fresh talent. The likes of Bajrang, Sakshi, and Vinesh belong to the generation of wrestlers who picked up the sport following Sushil Kumar's historic medal in Beijing. It's a matter of sad irony that Sushil himself is currently behind bars, facing charges of homicide. So far, only one wrestler -- Antim Panghal -- has booked her ticket to the Paris Olympics.


Bajrang, who was given an automatic spot for the Asian Games without having to appear in the selection trial, returned medal-less from the Hangzhou Asian Games while Vinesh is still recuperating from knee surgery. Three years back in Tokyo, Bajrang and Vinesh were among India's biggest medal hopes. Given the current state of affairs, it'll be a miracle if they even make it to the Paris-bound contingent.


Perhaps the mandarins of Indian wrestling - WFI as well as the IOA ad hoc committee - need to assess what has brought Indian wrestling to this mess. India's historic medal hauls at last year's Asian Games as well as Para Asian Games have raised hopes for a double-digit return at the Olympics, but for that to happen, Indian wrestling ought to get its act together.


Wrestling's global governing body, United World Wrestling (UWW), thinks as much. In a letter to the ad hoc committee and IOA president PT Usha on January 4, UWW has urged WFI and IOA to work together to ensure athletes can function in a secure environment. UWW has also urged WFI to constitute a sound grievance redressal mechanism to address issues of sexual harassment and also form an Athletes Commission within its structure, comprising an equal number of men and women members. In an interview with the Hindustan Times last month, Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra emphasised the need to have a 'functional' Athletes Commission (AC). It must be noted that IOA's AC has ten eminent Olympians on board, but the body has effectively remained absent while the wrestling charade played out over the year.


The events of the past year were a definitive reflection of how the sport is administered in India. While Indian sport has taken giant strides over the years and our athletes have finally begun to shine at the world's greatest stage — as evidenced by the historic medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics and Neeraj Chopra's pioneering gold medal at this year's World Championships — one can't deny some glaring anomalies in our sports administration. It's never too late to start the course correction.


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