wrestling: WFI Row: National interest must remain paramount

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We have seen them win laurels for the country on the mat. But never did we imagine seeing them on the mat for days demanding justice. And yet that’s what happened when India’s best wrestlers led by Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest against the Wrestling Federation and its President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The charges ranged from allegations of sexual harassment to financial irregularity in the running of the Federation and the athletes demanded his resignation while also asking for a fundamental overhaul of the WFI.

Images of athletes sitting in dharna were beamed live and became the talking point in the country. Finally, the Sports Ministry and the IOA stepped in and constituted independent inquiry committees and requested the athletes to call off the protest, which they did.

In all this there is one loser and that’s Indian sport. The charges are grave, and they need to be probed with urgency. At the same time the committees will need proof to remove an elected President of a Federation and recommend action. He can’t be arbitrarily removed based on allegations unless he loses control within his own Federation or there is a court order against him. Add the fact that Singh is a six-time BJP MP and an influential one and with elections due in Uttar Pradesh in a year’s time. Finally, there is also the Haryana Vs UP angle for the control of Indian wrestling.

The ministry and the IOA have both tried to proactively solve the crisis. While the IOA led by PT Usha could have stepped in earlier, it was important that empathy was shown to the athletes and their concerns heard.

The Asian Games are mere eight months away and it is important that the athletes resume training. The ministry and SAI will have to intervene and get the national camp restarted. The athletes need to keep faith in the IOA and the ministry and do what they are good at, wrestle.

Second, the demand for the disbanding of the Federation is irrational. In such a situation the IOC will ban India and the future of the sport will be in peril. And it is clear from the ministry’s press release and the IOA’s letter that such drastic action is not on the cards. Can these athletes and the Federation co-exist peacefully? The athletes have alleged that misconduct and harassment was going on for years. In such a situation what we need to know is if there was ever a complaint made and if senior management at SAI Lucknow was aware of what was going on? For it seems improbable that no one at SAI would know about athletes being regularly harassed by the coaches and officials.

While the WFI President deserves a fair hearing, and can’t be declared guilty based on a media trial, there is no reason to doubt the athletes’ integrity either. National interest is paramount and it must be remembered that these young men and women have brought laurels for the country at the international level. For the moment, however, all eyes are on the oversight committee constituted by the Sports Ministry and how the issue continues to play out in public.

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