Wrestlers as citizens seeking justice should inspire us all

The response to the wrestlers’ protest is a true measure of the place of sport and sportspeople in our nation, writes Sharda Ugra

Bajrang Punia (left) and Vinesh Phogat at the wrestlers' protest in New Delhi earlier this year (photo: National Herald archives)
Bajrang Punia (left) and Vinesh Phogat at the wrestlers' protest in New Delhi earlier this year (photo: National Herald archives)

Sharda Ugra

How could the sport that has given India more individual medals at the Olympics than any other produce the most distressing sights seen in the history of Indian sport?

Over the last 11 months, going by the response to the wrestlers’ protest, we were given a true reckoning of the place of sport and sportspeople in our nation. We saw our champion athletes go from being centrepieces of public and political adulation with big cheques and garlands to being pushed around by a posse of policemen onto the road and into vans. From being the epitome of patriotic blood and sweat, they were accused of being troublemakers, whose motives were political and whose tears were for TV.

For boys and girls in akharas around the country, aspirants dreaming of Olympic success, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia remain heroes. It is their achievements our young want to emulate. Wrestling Federation of India’s (WFI) former president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is never going to be any young wrestler’s role model.

This is why the sight of Sakshi Malik’s boots on a table full of TV mics, or Bajrang Punia’s Padma Shri award medallion on the pavement near India Gate, or reading Vinesh’s detailed letter to the Prime Minister returning her Khel Ratna and Arjuna Awards sends a shiver down the spine — not just of every young athlete, but sports fans, watchers and followers as well.

It was through Sakshi’s boots and Bajrang’s medallion and Vinesh’s words after she saw Bajrang discard his medallion — “uske baad mujhe bhi apne puruskaaron se ghinn aane lagi hai (after that I too feel revulsed by my awards)” — that young Indian athletes will sense deeply how exposed and vulnerable they really are. Their bodies, their rights, their selves are protected by nothing — not institutions, not regulations, not achievements.

The WFI’s sudden suspension by the Union sports ministry has calmed the waters and given the wrestlers assurance for a few days, but we cannot be certain that the truth on the ground will be fundamentally addressed.

Our young athletes, their parents and grassroots coaches know they are not stakeholders in the Indian sports ecosystem but dispensable and replaceable commodities. That ‘stature’ is a mirage. That our officialdom/ establishment is to be dealt with by only two means: silence or collusion.

It is through the wrestlers’ protest that we have seen what Indian sport is really all about. The medals and achievements, the podium with the tricolour rising and the national anthem soaring are the icing on the cake.

Much of the cake is actually pretty bad. We have seen some of our most decorated athletes — P. T. Usha (president, Indian Olympic Association [IOA]), M.C. Mary Kom (chairperson, IOA Athletes Commission), Gagan Narang (IOA vice-president and member, IOA Athletes Commission) to name the top three — respond to the wrestlers like establishment clones and not empathetic fellow-athletes, worthy successors, colleagues. A reminder that elite athletes are like us, driven by greed, insecurity, paranoia, and at this point in their lives, powered by entitlement.

Short competitive careers in a precarious world turns turf-titans into turf-protectors. But the truth is that in elite sport, it is this behaviour which is the norm.

After the WFI election, a poster with Brijbhushan’s face had a slogan reading, ‘dabdaba hai dabdaba toh rahega, yeh toh bhagwan ne de rakha hai (dominance is power, dominance will remain, after all it is God’s gift)’.

Indian sports federations are empires whose kings have divine rights. It is an Indian sporting norm. Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar advised the athletes to “focus more on sport”. Khattar’s tauji-like advice is also the norm in sport. Not just in India but anywhere athletes question power. In the US, they say, “stay in your lane”.

That the IOA and its fabled newly formed Athletes Commission have turned away from talking about the matter is the norm. Rather than the sports ministry, it is the P.T. Usha-led IOA which should have thrown the rulebook at the WFI. The IOA’s parent body, the International Olympic Commission (IOC) has an athlete safeguarding toolkit, which requires its member countries — and their members, like the WFI — adopt a victim-centric approach to handle athlete complaints and set up proper structures to deal with them.

The IOA’s response has been nothing but a timid second-guessing of what its political bosses are going to do. Despite our ambitious bid to host the 2036 Olympics, these happen to be familiar Indian sporting norms.

An Indian Express story (January 2020) reported that between 2010 and 2019, the Sports Authority of India had received 45 complaints from athletes of sexual harassment, 29 against coaches, the remaining against officials. So let us assume that bullying, harassment and abuse — sexual, physical, psychological — of young athletes without strong grievance redressal mechanisms is also an Indian sporting norm.

What the wrestlers, particularly those of considerable fame and eminence, have done should be recognised as the exception. And, as exceptional. Outside of the headlines their protest generated and the emotions it gave rise to or even the path the wrestlers may take from today, what we saw was the untiring ferocity of their fight.

Sport is fundamentally athletic symbolism in motion—of power, strength, beauty, effort. Outside of the monetary, its rewards are physical symbols too. When the wrestlers’ protest was responded to with brute force, they saw the utter meaninglessness and absence of worth in the symbolism of medals, government awards, stature, records, titles. In a heartbeat, they set the symbols aside, to shed them entirely if required and still stay standing for what had mattered to them most.

While competing, it is strength, endurance, patience, courage, toughness and the refusal to give in that makes elite athletes appear superhuman. Outside their ‘lane’, in standing up to power, Sakshi, Vinesh, Bajrang and their comrades showed us real fibre, the iron in their soul. In a country where protest and defiance has been invisibilised, caricatured, neutralised and demonised, to see these wrestlers — their dignity stripped bare, their intentions trivialised, their cause mocked — fighting as angry citizens seeking justice should humble and inspire us all.

Sharda Ugra is a sports journalist. Views are personal

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