Who is to blame for the Wrestling Federation of India ban?
The ban on India's wrestling federation with one year to go for the Paris Olympics poses grave threats to the wrestlers and India's medal hopes. But why were the WFI elections delayed, not once but twice, indefinitely?
Who is to blame for the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) ban?
Not a single person, to be precise. It is a consequence of a collective misadventure leading to a ban on the WFI. And who suffers because of this ban? The wrestlers and India.
United World Wrestling, the world governing body for wrestling, has suspended the WFI for the IOA-appointed ad-hoc committee’s failure to conduct elections on time.
The Indian wrestlers will now have to compete at the World Wrestling Championships, scheduled for September 16-24, as neutral athletes just like the Russians and Belarusians, who are not allowed to compete at international sporting events under their national flags due to a ban in the wake of the war against Ukraine. Thus, if an Indian makes a podium finish at the Worlds, no Indian national anthem will be played, no tricolour will be unfurled.
No Paris Olympic quota for 'India'
The ban on WFI came just a day before the selection trials to be held in Patiala on August 25 and 26. Following this ban, the fate of the trials has also become uncertain as WFI’s UWW status has been relinquished, and the Indian federation is not eligible for any type of communication with the world body.
This development has now put a question mark on Indian wrestlers’ participation in the Worlds. The ban also made India ineligible for the points and Olympic quota places at the Worlds. There are as many as 90 spots up for grabs at the World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
Those who will participate will not be eligible for Paris Olympic quota places as the points and quota places earned by wrestlers go to the national federation. In India’s ‘absence’, the quota places are uncertain.
"Usually in such cases (when the national body is suspended), the UWW allows athletes to compete as 'neutral athletes' at Olympic-qualifying World Championships," one of the ad-hoc committee members told PTI, but there is no clarification from the UWW yet.
Indian wrestlers, however, will not have to compete as neutral athletes at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, as the entries were sent by IOA, not WFI.
But that does not help India's quest for Olympic quota places. The Asian Games is not an Olympic qualifying tournament; as a result, this ban just less than a year before the Paris Olympics came as a massive blow to the Indian wrestling fraternity.
Indian wrestling, which is India’s golden goose of medals at international events, has been receiving bad press since January 2023, when wrestlers staged a sit-in protest in New Delhi, demanding an investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment of female wrestlers by outgoing WFI president and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
The wrestlers would move the Supreme Court on April 24 after the Oversight Committee, led by Mary Kom and formed by the Sports Ministry, could not resolve the matter. In the meantime, the ministry announced the WFI executive body null and void and cancelled the elections scheduled for May 7, urging the IOA to take care of the daily affairs of the federation. As the wrestlers – led by Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik - continued to protest against Brij Bhushan, they were dragged off their protest site by the Delhi Police in a dramatic turn of events. The wrestlers then went on to immerse their medals in the Ganges before cancelling it following a request from a Khap Panchayat leader.
The IOC and UWW, keeping a close eye on the development, urged the IOA to safeguard the athletes.
The UWW, in its May 30 statement, criticised the detention and threatened to suspend the WFI if it failed to hold its election within the stipulated time. The Asian Championship was moved out of India.
A typical Indian mess that inflicts a ban
With the Oversight Committee’s findings unable to address the wrestlers' demands and the government putting the ball into the IOA's court, who in turn handed over the responsibilities to the ad-hoc committee, which, in the meantime, got embroiled in an internal fiasco with members Bhupender Singh Bajwa and Gian Singh contending each other on various matters, including the trials for the Worlds, the turmoil in Indian wrestling only deepened, instead of finding any direction for a concrete solution.
It is an identical situation in the Indian context where things only get complicated when a controversy arises, with committees overlapping committees. In the case of wrestling, the state associations, who for years stayed mum, did not have a better time to raise their voice against injustice than this, with Brij Bhushan, who had been in charge of the WFI for a decade, allowing only his cronies to vote while barring those who did not relent on his line of governance.
The ad-hoc committee, which has its own troubles, could not address the impasse either. But the real threat to the WFI might have come when the elections had been delayed not once but twice, indefinitely, with state associations feeling deprived and taking the legal route.
The Returning Officer - Justice Mahesh Mittal Kumar (Retired) - had originally scheduled the WFI selection for July 11, but the Assam association moved the Gauhati High Court and procured a stay order on the elections on June 25. The stay order would get quashed when the Andhra association challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, paving the way for the polls.
Mittal would reschedule the elections for August 12. But on the eve of the poll, Punjab and Haryana High Court issued another stay order after Haryana Wrestling Association (HWA), led by Deepinder Singh Hooda, moved the court, seeking voting rights in the polls. The case is now pending for hearing in the Supreme Court, delaying the elections indefinitely.
With the turmoil continuing and the IOA and Sports Ministry playing the role of mere observant, failing to keep its early promise of cleaning the mess at the WFI, the UWW, fed up with its Indian member, suspended the WFI, leaving further questions on the health of Indian wrestling administration. It also dented the confidence of a burgeoning medal-winning sport, that is wrestling.