Tears Of Anguish
Suspending the Wrestling Federation of India comes too late
In a move that might be considered not only a little too late but also, somewhat suspicious, the Sports Ministry of India made the decision in the year to suspend the Wrestling Federation of India, but not before the medallists like Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia were once again brought to their knees.
In a year dominated not by sports headlines of sportspersons bringing glory to the country, which they did, but by the needless drama brought on by politics being intricately intertwined with sports, the Sports Ministry of India woke up to suspend the WFI but not before they seemed to ensure that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the person in the eye of the storm, was away from the saga. But not far enough apparently.
Singh the former WFI president has been accused, of sexual harassment and mental torture of some of India’s wrestling athletes in the country. With the WFI holding elections to bring into power Sanjay Singh, said to be Brij Bhushan’s close aide, the top wrestlers of India were once again at loggerheads with the federation.
In a surprise move, Malik announced in the middle of tears and with a symbolic pair of boots that she was retiring from the sport altogether and with immediate effect. In support Punia also announced he was returning his Padma Shri to the government. On Tuesday two-time Olympian Vinesh Phogat also announced that she was returning the Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards conferred on her.
Whether such acts were what forced the government to take action and also, write to the IOA, or is it that they think they have managed to separate Bhushan from the issue altogether remains to be seen. It is unlikely that the wrestlers’ off-the-mat fight is going to get any easier. It is a sad situation to close out a year when India, for the first time in the history of the competition, crossed the 100 medal mark at the Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Malik emphasised yet again that she felt a women president or a women’s wrestling federation body would have helped the cause. She also spoke about how the year of training had been derailed as the wrestlers took to the streets and to strike in order to bring those they have accused to book.
Punia, the Tokyo Games bronze medal winner was adamant he will not take his medallion back till justice was served. Malik like Phogat and others who have brought glory to India have been accused of wanting privileged posts in the government
They have also been accused of abandoning the cause for their own personal security and interests, and of taking the stance with an eye on an early retirement and foray into politics.
However, the fact that this issue has received a lukewarm response from the authorities, and without a promise of ensuring the safety, security, and resumption of training for the athletes must be a matter of concern.
If India’s vast population rallied behind the Indian men’s cricket team as they progressed towards the final of the epic ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 in late November, they should have been equally moved by the plight of the wrestling champions who have been brought to their knees, and to tears, by the manner in which their plight has been handled. It must be noted that there are only six months to go for the Paris Olympics.
The apathy is alarming, and one could call it a case of political milking. This has diluted what should be an important matter of players' safety and authority if India are to organise themselves for more medals in global events, including the Olympics.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is said to have his eye on bringing the Olympics to Motera. This may also be one of the reasons cricket became a part of the Olympics 2028, to be held in Los Angeles.
For Malik, a Rio Olympics bronze medallist, announcing her retirement is no small matter. Every player wishes to go out on a high. While retirement might have well been on the cards in the near future, this was certainly a scar on the sport, and on the way the country handles not only sportspersons but also, its own reputation.
It is not a highlight to see how the government that waves the Flag while watching the television screens, and pats sportspersons who return home with medals, is willing to leave them out on the street without a redressal, and allowed political actors to storm the stage as it were.
Even if the Asian Games might have briefly swayed the nation, as they often do rather hypocritically for sports that otherwise are not on the agenda of government initiative or the fan base or even sponsorship for commercial reasons, it is not a great endorsement for rising athletes.
They and their families are chasing their dreams knowing the government too might become a hurdle, and not a supporter, in their endeavours. Medals are won for the country but a player’s problems are supposed to be their own?
It is not enough for the government officials and ministers to join the noise and wave the Flag when medals are in sight. They must do more.
By protecting one within their own ranks, without a fair attempt to hear all sides of the issue and investigate the matter thoroughly, the government has shown its own dependency on those who have political clout, but not the ability to head sports federations. This too at the cost of the players who get invited to government functions only when they bring medals and glory to the country.
To now suddenly see red with the way the elections were conducted, and claiming rules and regulations were broken while Singh now conveniently washes his hands off his aide, at least in public, while Olympics winners, participants and aspirants were forced to hit the streets, has put the government in the dock.
Suspending the Wrestling Federation of India might be a first step but it is a late one and one without conviction.