Come July 2020, Tokyo is set to be the centre stage of the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza as it hosts the upcoming edition of the Summer Olympics. Ripples of the preparations for the quadrennial event can already be witnessed in the country. While athletes are leaving no stones unturned in a bid to earn the decorated Olympic medal, there's a smoke brewing underneath, as dark as the chimney steam, a cloud of controversies.
One can feel the breeze of the Olympic Games in India when selection controversies start cropping up from every walk of sport. The air around the Indian sports turns toxic and the landscape is changed into a bullring. Fighting inside, are the ones who’ve already lost the battle cry.
It’s not uncommon that some of the greatest names in Olympics history have had to get to the Games after a trial. For Indian athletes, challenges pertaining to participation are not limited to their performance or training but have rather moved to an alleged political conundrum by the national authorities.
There is a reason all advanced sporting nations who have a system in place conduct trials across sports. To put the idea of fair selection into perspective, the most successful and decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals - Michael Phelps, too, has to qualify in his trials to make his case for the Olympics.
While the country’s sporting heavyweights have challenged the need for a trial, the most promising and upcoming prospects fail to get a platform to put their mettle out forth. Amid all this, what has effervesced is the predominant lackadaisical nature of the country’s associations.
As the countdown approaches with less than a year to go for the big-ticket event, we delve deep into the dark side of India’s selection trials.
The Pooja Dhanda-Sarita Mor Conflict
Sarita Mor got the better of Pooja Dhanda in the selection trials for world championship earlier in the year, slated to be held in Kazakhstan from September 14-22. In a bout where Dhanda was dubbed as the favourite, Sarita Mor upstaged the 2018 World Champion to eke her out and earn her Worlds berth.
All sounds fair? Well, that’s not exactly the case!
Just prior to the selections, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) revamped their rules, allowing a relaxation of 1 kg to few participants to offer them a chance to compete in lower weight categories during the World Championships trials in Lucknow, earlier in the year.
So Sarita Mor (59kg) pitted against Pooja Dhanda (57 kg) was automatically an unfair battle with both grapplers representing different categories. It also implied that the wrestlers competing in specific weight categories for some time suddenly had new rivals from higher divisions in a vital selection trial.
However, despite the loss, Dhanda found a silver lining as she travelled for the Worlds to fight in the 59kg — a non-Olympic category. She earned her spot without any contest as there were no competitors in their weight categories.
This happened because
Justifying the move, WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh had said:
Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen - Two sides of the debate
A debate selling like
Unlike cricket, say, where a debate over a youngster replacing a veteran is not straightforward because there are plenty of intangibles (like in the case of MS Dhoni vs Rishabh Pant), boxing is an individual sport. Like wrestling, boxing too had to bite the dust with its fare share of controversies.
A boxer with unmatched pedigree, Mary Kom suggested that proven boxers should not undergo selection trials. The Manipuri justified that she did nothing wrong by asking for an exemption from the trials of the World Championships.
However, just a few months back, Nikhat Zareen and Mary Kom had shared the ring in the finals of 51kg India Open Boxing Championship. Nikhat put up a flamboyant display to give Mary a scare, but experience prevailed as she won 3:2 in the finals.
There is no doubt that Mary Kom is the best India have ever produced at the world stage. Her pedigree is unquestionable and her form is good.
Mary Kom has been boxing at the highest level consistently. And Nikhat Zareen, who has challenged the decision, still has age on her side as far as competing at the highest level is concerned.
But is giving her a free pass even justified?
The Sushil Kumar Controversy
Many of you might forget. Some might not. Set in pre-Rio 2016, cut away to India’s top grappler at the time- Sushil Kumar. The two-time Olympic medallist hit the headlines after he countered the Wrestling Federation of India’s (WFI) decision to send Mumbai wrestler Narsingh Yadav for the Rio Olympics.
Sushil had to sit out owing to a shoulder injury that he suffered during practice. His dream to represent India at the Games was in jeopardy. The incident provoked a raging debate on which wrestler should represent the country in the 74-kg category at the Rio Olympics, if not Sushil. Narsingh Yadav was called on to fill the spot.
Sushil, however, did not sit back, he approached the Delhi High Court seeking a trial bout in the 74-kg category against Narsingh but it bore no significant fruit. The threat was such that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had to provide Narsingh with an armed guard round-the-clock at the SAI training centre. The tremors that rocked Indian wrestling were a long time in the making, as we saw two finest Indian wrestlers pitted against each other, against the backdrop of a skewed federation.
Fast forward to July 2019, Sushil Kumar is again in the news. Can you guess what the reason is?
The WFI once again spurred into a series of controversy after it decided to postpone selection for some categories for the world championship trials owing to the injury of its ace grapplers- Sushil Kumar being one.
Sushil’s trial bout was also marred with controversies. The two-time Olympic medalist eked out a spirited Jitender Kumar 4-2 in a thrilling 74 kg final at Delhi’s IGI stadium. In the aftermath of the match, Jitender’s coach Javieer accused Sushil of indulging in unfair practices.
Sushil proved too much for his opponent as Jitender incurred an eye injury in the first period of the bout. Another attacking move later, Sushil had Jitender wincing in pain as he injured his elbow. Despite accusations, Jitender's plea fell into deaf ears and it was more like shouting into an abyss.
Isn’t there a pattern to this now? First Pooja Dhanda, then Mary Kom, followed by Sushil Kumar?