Why India's elite wrestlers have decided to fight their own federation - Explained
A series of serious allegations ranging from sexual exploitation, corruption, mishandling of funds and irregular running of the wrestling federation have been levelled.
Jantar Mantar, Delhi: As the early morning fog in the national capital started fading, wrestling fans in India woke up to a shocking visual of two Olympic medallist wrestlers, one World Championships medallist and multiple junior champions staging a protest at the famous Jantar Mantar protest side.
The 30 wrestlers assembled at the protest site included the likes of Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, Sarita Mor and many more. The wrestlers' primary demand was the removal of current WFI president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
A series of serious allegations ranging from sexual exploitation, corruption, mishandling of funds and irregular running of the wrestling federation came into the picture when the wrestlers started talking to the media.
Mental and Sexual Harassment of Wrestlers
Commonwealth Games champion Vinesh Phogat had everyone stunned when she alleged the President of WFI sexually exploited the women wrestlers in national camps.
Talking to the media, Vinesh said, "I can name more than 10 girls who were harnessed and molested during national camps. But nobody comes forward due to fear."
"One of the girls sitting here is also the victim of that. The coaches in national camps misbehave against women wrestlers and women coaches also. Despite us asking multiple times, the coaches were never removed," she added.
The media was shocked as Vinesh continued, "The coaches at national camps are the ones who also help Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and the president himself has exploited so many girls."
Vinesh Phogat mentioned multiple times that she has been threatened after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. "My life was made hell as the close associates of the President threatened me. Death threats came when I complained about everything happening at the federation. The president called me a khota sikka (counterfeit coin) after my loss in Tokyo."
Denying all the allegations, WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh said, "Did they have no problems with the federation for the past ten years? Issues emerge when new rules and regulations are brought in. Is there any person in front who can say that the Federation harassed any athlete?"
"I am ready to be hanged if any wrestler comes up with proof against me. I am ready for a police or CBI probe against all the allegations against me," WFI President added.
WFI President is notorious for flexing power in past. From abusing wrestlers to slapping them and stopping national championships to felicitate someone - the sport's recent history is rife with incidents of high-handedness with athletes.
Mishandling of Funds
One of the main concerns raised by the wrestlers was the mishandling of funds.
"Tata Motors has been sponsoring us for the past 4 years but nobody knows where is the money going. I have trained on my own without getting any support from the federation. The new policy says private sponsors will come through WFI, but if the Tata Motors money never came to us, how can we trust them with the money from the private sponsors?" Bajrang Punia questioned.
A lot of these wrestlers are sponsored by private sponsors such as JSW and Baseline Ventures. The new policy of WFI has made it mandatory to reach these sponsors through the federation now.
"Apart from funds, privilege is also an issue here. During Tokyo Olympics, I had no physio with me. It was important for the WFI president to travel instead of a physio for four female wrestlers," World championships medallist Vinesh Phogat said.
Hitting back at the wrestlers, Vinod Tomar secretary of WFI said, "The money has gone into building the federation office and conducting the national tournaments. The money is in the bank account of the federation. I don't have that 20 crores with me."
Arbitrary management in the Federation
"Our federation is run without any vision. There is no direction to where we are going," said Bajrang Punia.
Vinesh Phogat said, "My foreign coach was blamed for producing no results and eating the country's money. Due to the antics of officials and federation, nobody wants to come here."
"We have requested many times to move the camp away from Lucknow. Why does it happen only there? Because it's easy for them to prey on the women wrestlers," she said.
Explaining the situation further, Bajrang Punia said, "All the coaches who are appointed are also the favourites of the President. The quality coaches are denied the opportunity."
"Our fight is not against the government or the Sports Authority of India (SAI). This is against WFI. 'Yeh ab aar paar ki ladai hai' (It's a fight to the finish). We will continue this protest until WFI President is removed," Bajrang added further.
Demands by Wrestlers
"Our demand is the removal of the WFI president. If he is not removed we won't participate in any competition. This protest will continue till this measure is taken," all the wrestlers said in unison.
"We want Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a look into it and serve us justice," said Bajrang Punia.
The Sports ministry has asked the federation to produce a reply in the next 72 hours or the ministry will take action under the National Sports Code.
At this moment, this looks like a fight between athletes against the federations but given the history of Indian sports federations, this can be much more than this. An unnamed WFI official said, "This looks like political controversy. There is some push from behind and conspiracy also. They are angry after the policy change."
Nobody knows who is speaking the truth and who is hiding behind the lies but as the days' progress, we might witness one of the biggest coups in recent Indian sports history.