Wrestling federation ban: another twist in the tale, but who cares?
The WFI is India's third sports body, after the IOA and AIFF, to face censure from global bodies in the past year, with no end to the crises in sight
The ban on the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) by the sport's world governing body on Thursday was on expected lines, because this is not an isolated one in Indian sport. The past year has seen FIFA suspend the All India Football Federation for third-party intervention, while the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had a close shave after a warning from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
A damning indictment of sports governance in the country, though the other two were not as messy as the WFI ban. This saga has been persisting since January this year, involving a group of some of India's most elite wrestlers, who thought they had scored a moral victory with the dismantling of the erstwhile WFI working committee under Brij Bhushan Singh, the man at the eye of the storm. But they were mistaken.
Singh, a powerful sitting MP of the BJP, is charged with molestation and sexual harassment of a few women wrestlers, and is currently out on bail, though he continues to wield his wand in absentia. The IOA, on its part, had appointed an ad-hoc panel led by Bhupender Singh Bajwa to conduct the WFI elections within 45 days from 27 April, but a series of protests and lawsuits from various state bodies had stalled the proceedings.
The last of the stonewalling came on 11 August, with the elections being postponed by an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court owing to a lawsuit filed by the Haryana Wrestling Association.
Then, barely four days ago, Brij Bhushan aide Sanjay Singh, whom the likes of India's premier wrestler Bajrang Punia and his peers don’t exactly see eye to eye with, filed his nomination for WFI president along with three other candidates at Olympic Bhawan in New Delhi. The Brij Bhushan camp has also nominated Darshan Lal for the position of general secretary and SP Deswal for treasurer.
What does this entail for India’s wrestlers, who have accounted for a slew of medals in the last few Olympics, and have consistently been among the medal hopefuls at continental showpieces and other international events? Come next month, they will be participating as neutral athletes at the World Championships which will act as qualifiers for the 2024 Olympics, and not under the Indian tricolour.
The Asian Games in Hangzhou in China are less than a month away, but participation there should not be a problem since the IOA has submitted the entries there, rather than WFI.
What makes the case of wrestling particularly sordid is that unlike a constitutional crisis or litigation between power hungry officials for control of other bodies, the fight here has boiled down to one man vs the athletes’ community. The BJP-led central government, which stepped in to ‘resolve’ the crisis elsewhere — be it the cash-rich BCCI, AIFF or IOA — has failed to restrain the former WFI president altogether.
Under the circumstances, the IOA ought to have played the arbiter’s role, but its role now seems reduced to playing the waiting game. Public sentiments ran high until such time as the country's star wrestlers were engaged in highly visible and active demonstrations against Brij Bhushan in New Delhi, as it made fodder for prime time television, but then, public memory is proverbially short.
Eight months down the line since the wrestlers' protests first began, it seems as though everyone has moved on. Only the careers of a younger generation of wrestlers have been left in limbo. One can only hope there will be closure soon.