Can the wrestling crisis shake up the system?

Published on Jan 21, 2023 07:40 PM IST

It’s a story we have all heard before. Can a remarkable show of harmony among athletes make a dent in this unchanging narrative?

The Indian sporting system’s power equation creates the perfect atmosphere for unchecked abuse of all kinds. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The Indian sporting system’s power equation creates the perfect atmosphere for unchecked abuse of all kinds. (HT Photo)
ByRudraneil Sengupta

In 2015, American gymnast Rachael Denhollander publicly made allegations of sexual molestation against Larry Nassar, the then doctor attached to the United States (US) gymnastics team. In 2018, after an investigation that blew the lid off one of the most horrific and long-suppressed cases of sexual exploitation of children in sports, where more than 150 survivors of Nassar’s abuse (including Olympic champions such as Simone Biles) testified, Nassar was sentenced to life in prison. More importantly, it led to a revelation of just how vulnerable young men and women trying to make a career in sport are, even if they come from one of the foremost sporting nations in the world, where athletes are in the public eye and systems and administrative structures are, reputedly, robust and transparent.

Now India’s elite wrestlers — Olympic and world championship medallists, men and women — have come together to level allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the most powerful figures in the sport in the country, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

There are two remarkable aspects to this. The first is the unity among the wrestlers — this kind of solidarity among athletes in India is unprecedented. There has never been another example of all the top athletes in a sport setting aside their own differences (which are many and deep-seated), rivalries and factionalism to unite over a single agenda.

The other is the statute of the person they have taken on: Singh is a Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh for the ruling party, well-known and celebrated for being a strongman, with multiple cases against him, including those for rioting, grievous hurt, and attempt to murder. He is also named in the cases over the demolition of Babri Masjid.

When World Championship, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games medallist Vinesh Phogat, one of the spearheads of the current protests, said that she fears for her life, it is no exaggeration. Just like in the US, sexual abuse is widespread in Indian sport, and is kept under wraps with impunity. According to data obtained through a Right to Information (RTI) application, there were 45 complaints of sexual abuse made to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), which oversees the national camps and training centres for all Olympic disciplines between 2010 and 2020. Twenty-nine of those complaints were against coaches.

The consequences? Five coaches were penalised with reduced pay, one suspended, and two whose contracts were terminated, before they resurfaced in similar positions a few years later. One of India’s top athletes told me, on the condition of anonymity, that the abuse is far more widespread than what’s reported, but survivors almost never want to come forward. “They (athletes) are completely at the mercy of the system,” she said. “They come into camps when they are 10 or 12 years old, and are told to worship the coach and the administrators. They have given up on normal life with the dream of becoming athletes, and they know they only have a small window in which to make it count. When something bad happens, everyone — their parents, coaches, people in authority, fellow athletes — tells them that if they pursue this, their career will be over. Most people don’t want to destroy their dreams, so they keep quiet.”

A top official at SAI confirmed that he got many verbal, anonymous complaints of sexual harassment by coaches and officials throughout his tenure, but could take little action because the survivors backed out.

Neither is the system set up to help athletes — of the 56 national sports federations, less than 10 have sexual harassment cells. The allegations against Singh, too, come from a secondary source; Phogat is the one who has voiced it, on behalf, she said, of the many junior wrestlers who she claims called her to share their ordeals with her. Unless the survivors come forward, there will be no case against Singh, and an opportunity to seriously investigate sexual abuse in Indian sport may be lost.

The government has formed a team to probe the allegations, and asked Singh to step aside for now. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is undeniable: The Indian sporting system’s power equation — where athletes are pawns and officials are emperors without accountability — creates the perfect atmosphere for unchecked abuse of all kinds.

The top wrestlers are talking about this equation in detail and in one voice. It is also an open secret. In Singh’s 10-year tenure as wrestling chief, he has been a constant presence at national tournaments, where he openly influences referees and judges, stops bouts if he feels it’s not going the way he likes, orders results to be scrapped, and fights to restart without explanation. He has been caught on film assaulting junior athletes. The federation’s beef with the outspoken Phogat is long-running, public, nakedly petty, and deeply counter-productive for an athlete who is among the world’s best and represents the nation at the biggest stages. At the Tokyo Olympics, where she was seeded number 1 in the world, Phogat requested accreditation for her personal physio. The request was denied, so that an official of the federation could be accredited to accompany Singh instead.

It’s a story we have all heard before. Can a remarkable show of harmony among athletes make a dent in this unchanging narrative?

Rudraneil Sengupta is an independent journalist and author of Enter the Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape

The views expressed are personal

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