To be or not to be a wrestler

- August 7, 2023

Accusations of sexual harassment against the wrestling federation chief and the subsequent drama that unfolded has left many young female wrestlers divided on pursuing the sport

<strong>STARS PROTEST: </strong> Vinesh and Bajrang Punia were at the forefront of wrestlers' protest against former WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh

“It is a big setback to the wrestling community as a whole. In my opinion, the protest by elite wrestlers at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar earlier this year will have significant impact both mentally and financially on the next generation of wrestlers like us.”

This is how Nikita Sansanwal, a teenage international wrestler from Delhi, sums up the future of wrestling in India.

Bajrang Punia, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games bronze-medallist in freestyle wrestling, Vinesh Phogat, a two-time Olympian, and Rio Olympic Games bronze-medallist Sakshi Malik were among several wrestlers who staged protest twice at Jantar Mantar against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) supremo Brij Bhusan Sharan Singh for his alleged role in sexual abuse of young female wrestlers in the national camp in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.

While the women’s national camp is organised at Sports Authority of India (SAI) Complex in UP, the men’s camp is held at SAI Complex in Sonepat, Haryana. 

The wrestlers have also lodged complaint with the Delhi Police. The police recently submitted a chargesheet against the former WFI president in the court.

Nikita, a college-going student and a winner of bronze medal at the Asian under- 23 Championships added that the protest has had a huge impact at the grassroots.

“The allegations of sexual harassment against WFI chief Brij Bhusan Sharan Singh have raised doubts in the minds of parents and young female wrestlers,” she added.

“I have attended two national age-group camps in Lucknow. The environment was okay for me. I didn’t smell anything fishy. I enjoyed my stay in the camp,” said the wrestler who dominated her weight category (62kg) at the Khelo India Youth Games. She also won gold in the Khelo India University Games. The promising wrestler also won bronze at the 2023 Asian U-23 Wrestling Championships.

The wrestler says she has been confused since the start of the protest.

“Sometimes it is difficult to understand what is going on,” she added.

National Calendar Affected

However, the immediate fall-out of the protest was suspension of the WFI by the sports ministry and disruption of the national calendar.

“Upcoming players like me look forward to state and national competitions because podium finishes enable us to become eligible for government scholarships,” Nikita added.

“We spend money on diet, domestic travel and entry fees. Hence, we look forward to monthly scholarships. But this year we will not get any financial assistance from the government due to lack of competitions.”

Ramphal Mann, a veteran wrestling coach, also had a similar opinion.

“The protest by elite wrestlers was a huge setback to development at grassroots,” Mann said.

The main motive of the players sitting on dharna, Mann said, was to cleanse the system as there were allegations of sexual abuse of young female wrestlers during the national camp.

“But eventually those protesting against the system themselves took favour from the ad-hoc panel and got direct entry to the Hangzhou Asian Games,” the veteran coach added.

“It has sent a wrong message across the wrestling community. Youngsters will not have faith in senior players as they feel betrayed.”

Promising wrestler and world U-20 champion Antim Panghal (53kg) and Sujeet Kalkal (65kg) challenged in the Delhi High Court an ad hoc panel’s decision to grant direct entry to Bajrang and Vinesh in Asiad squad.

The petition was dismissed. The wrestlers now plan to knock the doors of the Supreme Court.

“We have been training hard to prepare for the Asian Games trials. If we don’t get fair opportunities then we can’t achieve our goal,” Antim said about moving the court.

Antim also won the 53kg bout during the Asian Games selection trials held here at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Sports Complex. She is a standby while Vinesh has got direct entry.

“I am optimistic but a series of unsavoury events happening paints a bleak picture of the future of wrestling,” Mann said.

Mahavir Prasad Bishnoi, Dronacharya Awardee in wrestling, said that the protest by elite wrestlers will have a huge impact on the development of wrestling in the country in near future.

“The allegation of sexual harassment will discourage parents from sending their daughters to wrestling practice and competitions. Which means a new crop of female wrestlers will not come to the mat in the next 3-4 or more years,” Bishnoi added.

Unfortunately, added the Dronacharya Awardee, the protest has taken place in the pre-Olympic year which primarily should have been utilised for preparation of the Paris Olympic Games.

“Due to the protest, the national team performance will be impacted in the Hangzhou Asian Games as well as at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024,” he said further.

Parents Cagey

Speaking to a cross section of parents whose children, particularly young daughters, are associated with wrestling, it has emerged that they are confused.

Majority of the wrestlers come from humble backgrounds and they can’t raise their voice against a powerful politician, one of the parents said.

“The whole episode has exposed both the functioning of the federation and the elite athlete,” said a parent on condition of anonymity.

“If sexual harassment was allegedly happening for long, the coaches appointed by the WFI should have filed a complaint with the sports ministry as the coaching camp was being held at SAI Complex.”

A young parent whose school-going daughter (Class 6th) is associated with wrestling said that when the protest started, they were supporting the players, but the announcement of Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat getting direct entry to Asian Games has given a wrong impression that these wrestlers are fighting for their personal gains and not to cleanse the system.

“The protest was eye-opening. Agreed that it is difficult to fight politicians or powerful sports officials. The government should certainly look forward to clean the system to safeguard the future of the young athletes,” said the parent.

Despite the spotlight on wrestling for the wrong reasons, there are people who have deep wrestling roots and will continue to religiously follow the combat Olympic discipline.

Take for example Pradeep Shokeen, whose 12-year-old daughter is a regular at a local wrestling training centre in Najafgarh, southwest Delhi. He said his family has been

associated with wrestling for a long time.

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“We are aware of what is happening in wrestling circle. But wrestling has been practiced by our parents and we want our daughter to pursue wrestling,” added Shokeen. “We are happy that she has started winning at school level in the 50kg category.”

Mannat Dhankar recently shifted to Delhi from Jhajjar in Haryana. His nine-year-old daughter wants to pursue wrestling.

“In our village near Jhajjar, there are no facilities for girls to take up wrestling. So, we decided to move to Delhi,” Dhankar revealed.

Dhankar said his family (father and brother were good wrestlers) has been into wrestling and it is difficult for him to stay away from akhara.

“As a father I will certainly take precautions and be more aware in future, but we will support our daughter if she wants to pursue wrestling at a higher level,” Dhankar added.

Capt (retired) Vinod Kumar, whose niece was medal winner at the just-concluded junior continental championships in Jordan said that due to ongoing mess in wrestling, India’s image at the world level has been tarnished.

“In the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Indian wrestling was a good talking point. Instead of moving forward, with 12 months to go for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the Indian wrestlers don’t carry the same respect due to protest against the WFI functioning,” the retired army official said. 

“In my opinion it is a big loss.”