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Vinesh Phogat and Sonam Malik’s Nonsensical Suspensions a Way for WFI to Regain Control

Vinesh Phogat and Sonam Malik’s suspensions point towards a deeper malaise within the wrestling fraternity of India. The patriarchal culture has been questioned by young women in the sport and to protect their own, the federation has responded with the age-old trick: censor or silence.
Wrestler Vinesh Phogat at Tokyo Olympics

Vinesh Phogat and Sonam Malik (inside the story), in action at the Tokyo Olympics.

Discipline, in the context of sports, in the Indian set-up especially, is vaguely defined with a lot of subjective fineprint and hierarchical subtext. Unless the act in question is something that goes vehemently against the law of the land, or the notions of societal propriety that is. Vinesh Phogat and Sonam Malik, suspended by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) for their acts of “gross indiscipline” have not done anything of that magnitude. In fact, their transgressions, is at the most a case of indiscipline as per the rather skewed and at times untenable standards of discipline Indian wrestling is known for. The problems could have been settled in a manner fitting of a body whose primary job should be to take care of interests and wellbeing of its athletes, and not to burden or bog them down.

From the outset, the action, and the irresponsible leaks federation sources have been pushing to the media using terms such as “funds embezzlement” looks shallow. It defies logic and ethics on many levels. It seems the federation officials have an agenda, but discipline is not exactly it. It is a possibility that the action against Phogat stems from the fact that she has always been outspoken and critical of the governing body’s stances whenever she has felt it fell short. 

For instance, Phogat was vocal about the need for a physio for the four women wrestlers in the Indian team at the Tokyo Olympics. They competed without a specialized physio, a huge handicap, considering the level of competition, and the kind of hit the body takes, which needs intervention from a professional before they enter the fray again. 

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Phogat’s statement on social media, a week before the wrestling event commenced in Tokyo, created headlines, and perhaps the wrestling federation and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) were not comfortable with the negative attention. 

The suspension of the duo was announced on August 11, mere days after the wrestlers returned home. The reasons cited are perplexing and the cases against them hold very little water on close scrutiny.

The wrestling federation — controlled by men even as the sport tried to achieve gender parity globally — has drawn up a three-point chargesheet against Phogat.

Act No. 1. Phogat decided not to stay in a room with her teammates at the Games village.

Dear Indian wrestling officials, you are dealing with athletes who are competing at the highest level. And, for them to perform in their prime, there are certain elements that need to be in place as per their level of expectation and satisfaction. Maybe, Phogat did not prefer a room with others around. Maybe she preferred seclusion to get into the zone. It is the federation’s responsibility to ensure the comfort of the wrestler, any wrestler, and the demand was not unreasonable, provided of course the Tokyo Olympics officials had a room to spare within their rules of operation to accommodate the Indian. As far as we know, they had no issue with this.

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Act No. 2. Vinesh chose to not train with the Indian women. 

Now, this falls not under indiscipline but Phogat’s personal choice as to how much team spirit she would like to display without compromising her own mission in Tokyo. Wrestling is an individual sport and when Phogat is out there on the mat, it is not her teammates, but her preparations that would hold her in good stead. That she lost is a different matter altogether, and the way she lost might hint as a not-so-ideal path to the Games. That should be looked into by the officials, with the right sporting yardsticks, and not a witch hunt with allegations such as these.

Vinesh, in the final few days before her bout, might have preferred to train with her regular partner, who happens to be an Hungarian wrestler, and wife of her personal coach Woller Akos. Comfort in such things matters, for sparring with unfamiliar partners — even if they are Indians — could lead to an injury at the 11th hour. The wrestling officials know this, but their attempt seems to be to simply add points to the chargesheet against Phogat.

Act No. 3. This, to start with, seems the most damning one for Phogat. The wrestler chose to wear a Nike singlet for her bouts and not one provided by India’s official kit supplier, Shiv Naresh.

This can amount to a breach of contract. However, many things are debatable here, including the possible gulf in quality between the Indian firm’s singlet, and one provided by one of the largest sports manufacturers in the world. Apparel matters in high performance sport, and again, the familiarity of sticking to a certain brand makes a difference in the athlete's performance. We can be sure Phogat was not trying to make a style statement in Tokyo by sticking to a global brand. There are tangible sporting reasons for it.

Also Read | What is Ailing Vinesh Phogat?

Also, let us not forget that a similar incident happened with one of our women athletes at the Rio Olympics in 2016. The athlete’s name is PV Sindhu. She played wearing Yonex attire, when the then kit sponsor was Li Ning. At the time it was reported that Sindhu was uncomfortable with Li Ning’s jersey, or its colour, and stuck to the brand she was used to playing in. Controversy erupted, for sure. But then, neither the Badminton Association of India nor the IOA banned Sindhu. How could they? She was one of the two athletes who won a medal at Rio. 

The difference here was the silver medal Sindhu won. Clearly so. Phogat’s transgressions would have been ignored had she won a medal. Phogat lost in the quarterfinals in the 53kg category and did not get a second chance for bronze with repechage either.

Wrestler sonam malik at Tokyo Olympics

Over to Malik, whose sin, and the punishment it has attracted, is irrational, period. Once the authorities had affixed the visa and accreditation for Malik to travel to Tokyo, she was asked to collect the passport from the WFI office in New Delhi. With Covid-19 restrictions and personal safety being a concern (athletes were under strict quarantine to avoid infection at the last moment, complying with the playbook of the Games itself), Malik had no choice but to use someone else’s help to collect her travel document. She reportedly used a Sports Authority of India (SAI) official. This act has been interpreted as arrogance, and indiscipline, and the WFI has come down hard on the 19-year-old wrestler who competed in the 62kg category.

Imagine the plight of this young wrestler and what she would be going through at the moment. Malik lost on debut, and lost valiantly. She would be upset by it for sure. And she returns home, with learning, and with intent to improve and target the next Games, only to be served a ban, based on flimsy reasoning.

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At this point, we should remember the journeys these two wrestlers have undertaken to be where they are. Proud Olympians. A considerable achievement, and one which the current WFI president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is overseeing the moves against the two wrestlers, could possibly never understand. Brij Bhushan has not wrestled. He is at the helm of WFI by virtue of his political achievement — an MP of the ruling party, the BJP. 

A week back, Brij Bhushan was quoted in reports as saying that funding schemes such as TOPS and the private entities who support the Indians in their quest for Olympic glory, are making the athletes arrogant. So much so that the WFI do not have a say or control in their training, he had implied.

The action against Phogat and Malik seems to be an extension of that statement. The reasons presented by WFI while handing the bans (the wrestlers are given time till August 16 to respond before the federation’s disciplinary committee finalises the action) hint at a larger issue too. 

The two instances seem to be intended to massage the egos of WFI honchos. The scenario goes against the very chauvinistic nerve of the federation, for sure. Women in their sport have started questioning the sport’s aristocracy. A couple of weeks before the Tokyo Games, a WFI top brass had spoken at large with me about Indian medal hopes at the games. He had practically written off Phogat, saying she is “stubborn” and that will ruin things for her. With hindsight now, thanks to this ban, it seems the WFI was waiting for Phogat to fail. If at all the federation had an inkling that Phogat’s preparation is not quite in order, it, as a governing body, should have intervened. Instead, it chose to wait, watching her fail. Then, instead of questioning the reason for her failure, and analysing it for course correction (Phogat, 26, is still young enough to have a go at the Games again, possibly twice too), the federation has launched a mission to bring her down. 

The WFI is also probably trying a bit of diversion to cover up for its own shortcomings. Two medals from the Games is good, and wrestling ended being India’s most successful discipline. But, two sure-shot medals were lost too and there are very real, wrestling reasons for the failure. Indiscipline is not one of them. 

The bans of Phogat and Malik seems to be done in retaliation, the federation is trying to make an example of the two wrestlers — with perhaps a perverse patriarchal joy in the fact that the action comes against two women (Khap style) — to ensure dissent is not a norm in the sport. New India, indeed.

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