Wrestlers' protest reveals problems in how Indian athletes are groomed
"This fight is not just for us, this fight is for athletes of the future as well," said Vinesh Phogat. While the wrestlers' fight is against the WFI, the blame must be shared by all stakeholders of India's Olympic sports story.
Over the last few days, unprecedented visuals have been broadcast from New Delhi's Jantar Mantar as India's elite wrestlers including Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia have held a protest against the "dictatorship" of Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
The wrestlers have levelled shocking allegations against Singh, accusing him of sexual exploitation and mental harassment of women wrestlers, and have demanded his resignation. The wrestlers allege the wrongdoing has been going on for many years.
However, it took the wrestlers nearly a decade before they could unite and fight against the alleged crimes of the WFI president.
So what held them back in the past?
The problem lies in how we as stakeholders groom our athletes to take on the world. When an athlete is in his or her crucial developing phase, the focus is always on how to aid their sporting growth and win a prized medal. The mantra that's followed is "EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT!
This singular focus on results leaves them vulnerable and willing to overlook injustices that they might never tolerate otherwise.
There is no conscious effort made in shaping their overall personality, of which sports is just a single part.
Importance of training athletes outside the ring
What is happening at the Jantar Mantar is a wake-up call. Yes, the wrestlers are fighting against the injustice that they have faced for so many years at the hands of WFI. But there is more to it.
The blame is spread across the stakeholders in India's Olympic sports story. As responsible stakeholders who dream of bringing the Olympics home, we need to start grooming our athletes more holistically.
They need to be sensitised at all ages towards social issues like sexual harassment, mental pressure, gender equality. We need to make an effort to create a safe environment where an athlete can talk about their feelings without any hesitation. There needs to be an ecosystem where an athlete is taught how to deal with mental health issues or cases of sexual harassment.
It's not just the athletes who need to be educated. We also need to sensitise coaches who work at the grassroots level. Athletes, especially in India, trust their coaches almost blindly and anything told by coaches to athletes at that age will have a strong imprint on their worldview going forward. They are the feeders to the national team and have the biggest onus in development of athletes at young ages.
The language disadvantage faced by most Indian athletes
Another factor that would help athletes hugely is giving them the tools to communicate freely, the most basic tool being language.
While all our athletes are well-versed in their mother tongue and additionally Hindi, they all struggle with English. This makes it a challenge when they want to expand their horizons beyond their immediate circles. It prevents them from learning from the experiences of others, who might have a lot to teach them.
Due to their lack of communication skills, they struggle in talking to their counter-parts. It also narrows their opportunities of competing or even training abroad. Many Indian athletes who train in the NCAAs come out of American colleges with a far more holistic approach to life.
One of the US coaches had once told me that while they would like Indian athletes to come and compete in NCAA's, no college or universities wants to take that risk due to lack of basic communication skills.
We need to change this now. The mantra should not just be "EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT!" but "EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, EDUCATE, REPEAT!"
As Vinesh puts it, "Ye ladai sirf apne liye nahi hai, aane waale khiladiyon ke liye bhi hai (This fight is not just for us, this fight is for athletes of the future as well.)"