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How Indian wrestling, golden goose of medals, remains plagued by crisis

With less than two days remaining for IOA to send the names of the wrestling contingent to the Hangzhou Asian Games organisers, Indian wrestling has found itself in a quandary.

How Indian wrestling, golden goose of medals, remains plagued by crisis

Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia 

Sudipta Biswas

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 21 July 2023 4:08 PM GMT

Controversy and Indian wrestling have become synonymous of late. Since January this year, with wrestlers - led by Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, and Sakshi Malik - launching an unprecedented protest against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh- the BJP MP and out-going WFI chief - wrestling in India has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Six women wrestlers - with Vinesh and Sakshi being the faces of the protest - have filed complaints with the Delhi Police, alleging sexual harassment and criminal intimidation by the WFI chief.

With the matter now pending in a Delhi court, it seems wrestling has been caught up in the middle of a never-ending crisis, revealing a sorry state of affairs of the sport in India and hurting its image like never before, and that too, just ahead of the marquee Asian Games in China.

With less than two days remaining for IOA, the nodal body of Indian Olympic sports, to send the names of the wrestling contingent to the Asian Olympic Council (AOC) and Hangzhou Asian Games organiser, Indian wrestling has found itself in another quandary.

With IOA appointed ad-hoc committee, chaired by Bhupender Bajwa, giving exemption to Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang (65kg freestyle) and World Championships medallist Vinesh (53kg freestyle) from selection trials - confirming their selection to the Asiad - it understandably left other wrestlers of these two categories direly upset.

This happened after Bajwa stepped away from his original plan of giving exemption to protesting wrestlers only in the first phase before they grapple with the winners of their weight categories in the final selection round. His panel eventually gave Bajrang and Vinesh direct entry into the Asian Games, sparking a controversy.

Two wrestlers - Sujeet Kalkal and Antim Panghal - have filed a joint petition to the Delhi High Court on Wednesday challenging the decision as their supporters turned up outside the IOA headquarters to protest the “injustice”. In the recent past, however, there has been no such precedent of wrestlers challenging the federation's decision, especially when Brij Bhushan was at the helm.

The knee-jerk reaction from IOA

While hearing the joint plea of Antim - the World Junior Championships gold medallist - and Sujeet - the Asian U-20 and U-23 champion - the HC asked the ad-hoc committee, in charge of the daily affairs of the WFI, to explain the basis of their decision to give protesting wrestlers - Bajrang and Vinesh - exemptions from trials.

It has been learned that the ad-hoc committee has taken the decision in consultation with the Union sports ministry and Sports Authority of India (SAI), but has not kept IOA president PT Usha in the loop.

What followed next was a knee-jerk reaction from the IOA, with the governing body creating confusion and putting out two back-to-back press releases regarding the selection of the wrestlers.

"To maximise the chances of sending the most competitive wrestling team to the Asian Games 2022, the final selection of wrestlers will be made before the departure of the team from the competition," read the first statement.

With the release drawing criticism, a rattled IOA came up with an amended word in its second statement. This time it stated, "To maximize the chances of sending the most competitive wrestling team to the Asian Games 2022, the final assessment of wrestlers will be made before the departure of the team from the competition."

Irrespective of the IOA's decision, the final word on the matter of selection will be taken by the Delhi HC now, depending on how the ad-hoc committee justifies its decision to give exemptions to Bajrang and Vinesh and shut down the doors on Sujeet and Antim.

Challenges to Vinesh, Bajrang exposes rift in the wrestling community

Statistically, in their previous meetings, Vinesh won the Birmingham Commonwealth Games selection trials against Antim and defeated the latter in the trials for the World Championships by a 7-0 margin. Sujeet, too, lost to Bajrang in the trial for the CWG 4-0.

While the trials for Asian Games for the other eight weight categories will be conducted on July 22 and July 23 at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi, the fate of the men's 63kg freestyle and women's 53kg freestyle remains uncertain.

Currently, both Bajrang and Vinesh are training abroad. Bajrang is in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul, while Vinesh was to train in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a week, before a stint at Tata, Hungary, as approved and sponsored by Mission Olympic Cell (MOC) and Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), making the chances for trials nearly impossible, leaving the two categories in a limbo.

While the WFI's existing policy allows it to exempt top athletes - the Olympic and World Championships medallists - from selection trials (In the past Bajrang, Ravi Dahiya, Deepak Punia, and Naveen Malik were exempted from selection trials by the federation) - the joint petition by Sujeet and Antim has exposed the rifts in the country's wrestling community. Their petition has also come at a time when Brij Bhushan is under trial and has been granted regular bail by Delhi's Rouse Avenue District Court on Thursday.

Of course, Antim and Sujeet deserve chances. Yet, their joint petition to challenge the ad-hoc committee's decision to select Bajrang and Vinesh without trials is not a benign one, with Sujeet's father openly questioning the intent of the protesting wrestlers.

"Since the beginning of the protest, these wrestlers wanted exemption from trials, their fight was never for justice or the cause of junior wrestlers. All they wanted was automatic selection for the Asian Games and World Championships. That is why we moved the court to expose them," stated Dayanand Kalkal, Sujeet's father.

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