Wrestlers protest
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik address the media during a press conference on the protest against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on April 30, 2023. The silence of fellow sportspersons and celebrities has been deafening. Image Credit: ANI

Leaders use sportspersons as photo fodder, discarding them as soon as the camera shutters stop clicking. Except in cricket, which has billions in funding, it is the story of Indian athletes. It is an open secret that politicians who control the associations and sports bodies in the country kick athletes around. The system meant to safeguard them ensures their exploitation.

As I watched the forlorn women wrestlers, who have made India proud by winning Olympic glory, protest alleged sexual harassment by a powerful ruling party MP, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, I felt a familiar rage course through my body — the rage most women in India feel about sexual harassment and sex pests. As a woman, if you have career dreams and step out of your home, you are considered fair game for sexual harassment.

I can empathise with the women athletes who have left the winners podium for a 24/7 protest on the mean streets of Delhi. As an investigative journalist covering crime and national security, I have faced the same harassment innumerable times. Times when I told myself to focus on the story and not make it about me, denying the rage that coursed through me.

It is disappointing that the Indian Olympic Association’s Athletes Commission has not been allowed to issue a statement of solidarity so far.

- Abhinav Bindra, India’s Olympic gold medal-winning shooter

The women wrestlers are protesting against an egregious politician who, on camera, slapped a young male wrestler mercilessly on stage. His crime: he asked Singh for justice. Singh, a six-time MP, has also confirmed on camera that he committed murder and boasted about it. Earlier, terrorism charges were levelled against him.

The wrestlers had to go to the Supreme Court to get a mere First Information Report (FIR) registered. This tells you about the imbalance of power between the wrestlers and the politician. The wrestlers only have the tricolour draped on medal-winning shoulders, while Singh has power.

The protest has also exposed the feet of clay of some of our heroes. Sachin Tendulkar, the “deity of cricket” and winner of the highest Indian civilian award the Bharat Ratna, has been silent on the protest, lending zero support. Tendulkar, a nominated member, barely attends the Parliament. He had tweeted in favour of the Modi government, saying that the farmers’ protest was “India’s internal matter”. Perhaps, he thinks sexual harassment is a “foreign matter”.

Actors, who take positions on issues, are mum. They include Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan, who reaped box office gold with Dangal, a film about women wrestlers.

Before the cynicism gets all-pervasive, Abhinav Bindra, the shooter who won the first individual gold medal for India, and Neeraj Chopra, the gold-medal-winning javelin thrower, showed us their mettle by supporting the wrestlers.

What Abhinav Bindra said

I spoke to Bindra exclusively for Gulf News, and this is what he said:

As a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes Commission, how do you view the current situation of wrestlers?

I am deeply concerned to find athletes finding it necessary to protest on the streets regarding the allegations of harassment in the Indian wrestling administration. My heart goes out to all those who have been affected. There is a crucial need to put proper safeguards and systems into place so that such issues can be handled appropriately and a safe environment can be created for athletes. Now that the police are investigating the matter, I am hopeful the case will be handled fairly.

It is learnt that the Indian Olympic Association Athletes Commission, where you are a co-opted member, was not allowed to issue a statement of solidarity. What would you have to say?

It is disappointing that the Indian Olympic Association’s Athletes Commission has not been allowed to issue a statement of solidarity so far. As athletes’ representatives, it is our moral obligation to do everything we can for the well-being and safety of the community. Athletes Commissions must effectively be able to communicate with the larger community to achieve this goal.

How do we change the system and the dynamics of the relationship between athletes and politicians? They use sportspersons for photo opportunities but mistreat athletes.

The relationship between athletes and administrators needs to change; athletes should be provided with structures and systems within the organisation to discuss matters of concern openly. While a lot has changed for the better, more work needs to be done to ensure the day-to-day functioning and governance of sport at a higher level. Organisations must create high-performance environments and ensure that well-being is at the heart and centre of performance. At the end of the day, athletes are human beings first.

Except for cricketers, politicians treat sports governing bodies as milch cows. Shouldn’t professionals manage them?

Read more

Bringing professionals will ensure better governance, which will ultimately have a positive effect on the lives of athletes and their performances. All efforts that can improve the quality of day-to-day governance must be made to ensure that athletes are treated with the respect they deserve.

I also sent questionnaires to the IOC asking how they viewed the situation regarding the grave allegations levelled by the women wrestlers. I also asked their views on P T Usha, the IOA president who showed no empathy to the women wrestlers and deemed them simply “indisciplined”. I sought the IOC’s views on Nita Ambani, the IOC member who has remained totally disconnected from Indian athletes and has not spoken on the wrestlers’ charges.

What the IOC said

Here’s the response from the IOC spokesperson:

“The situation of the Wrestling Federation in India is being monitored by the International Federation concerned (United World Wrestling — UWW) and the IOA has been requested to liaise and work closely with UWW to coordinate any action vis-à-vis the Wrestling Federation in India. The IOC stands together with all athletes to state that harassment and abuse of any kind are contrary to the values of Olympism. Athletes’ safety and wellbeing is a priority for the IOC and is in line with its mission, stated in the Olympic Charter, to “promote safe sport and the protection of athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse”,” the statement said

“To support this, the IOC Executive Board recently announced the setup of a dedicated working group to determine independent models and systems to strengthen safe sport at the local level, alongside a $10 million fund per Olympiad to ensure support and resources are directed to where they are most needed. Safeguarding is an extremely complex topic requiring specialised, sensitive and comprehensive approaches in order to prevent, and ensure appropriate response to harassment and abuse to protect and support affected individuals. As this incident is under investigation by the relevant organisations, we cannot comment further on individual cases,” it added.

Regarding Nita Ambani, the statement said: According to the Olympic Charter, IOC Members are not representatives of their country in the IOC, but representatives of the IOC in their country. Ms. Ambani is very much involved in the work of the IOC, including the organisation of the 140th IOC Session in October in Mumbai, India.”

Now, it’s time India got some answers about politicians who run professional athletes’ bodies like feudal fiefdoms.