WFI v Vinesh Phogat - the bout within a larger battle

Vinesh Phogat wrestles Belarus' Vanesa Kaladzinskaya in the women's freestyle 53kg quarterfinals at Tokyo Olympics. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

The president of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, in an interview to the Indian Express on Saturday, has lashed out at the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) as well as private bodies like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) and JSW for sidelining his federation. Singh in a response to a query on whether players associated with the private bodies would be allowed to compete for the federation in the future replied in the negative -- "Bilkul nahi khelne doonga (Absolutely will not allow them to play)." The comments were made following a statement by Singh where he said he wanted to make an example of wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who was served a show-cause for allegedly refusing to stay with the Indian team at the Tokyo Olympics and not wearing the team's official uniform for her bouts.

How did the current situation come to pass?

On August 11, the WFI had served a show cause notice to wrestler Vinesh Phogat for allegedly refusing to stay with the Indian team at the Tokyo Olympics and not wearing the team's official uniform for her bouts. However conflict first began to emerge in public a month earlier when a news report claimed Phogat had demanded a personal physio at the Tokyo Olympics. Following that report, Phogat, an Asian Games champion and world bronze medalist, had questioned whether the demand for a physio at the Tokyo Olympics was an unreasonable one.

What does the physio demand have to do with the WFI chief lashing out at the private bodies?

While Phogat's issue is the flashpoint, the seeds of the conflict lie in a turf war between the federation and the private bodies that has been supporting various elite athletes over the greater part of a decade.

Phogat has been sponsored by the private body Olympic gold quest (OGQ) since late 2017 and had been supported by JSW Sports before this. The physio whose accreditation she was demanding had been provided by OGQ. The WFI chief claimed in his interview with the Indian Express that the bodies were 'spoiling the athletes'. In an earlier interview he had claimed the private bodies were coming in through "chor ka darwaza'"(literally - via the door of thieves; i.e. not behaving in a straightforward way).

What is the criticism by the WFI chief about these private bodies?

In public, the WFI chief has criticized the private bodies for working with already well established athletes rather than juniors and cadets, taking credit for successes and cutting out the federation from communication between the athletes and the government agencies like TOPS that provide funding to athletes as well.

Is the WFI chief's criticism justified?

The criticism of the private bodies seem to be misplaced. According to OGQ, they have been supporting wrestlers Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Deepak Punia for the last 6 years since they were 17 and 16 years old respectively, well before they both came into the limelight.

Of the 32 wrestlers supported by OGQ, 23 are below the age of 19. There is also email documentation to show that the federation had been kept in the loop in the communication between Phogat, OGQ and the TOPS when it came to her request of a physio.

Had there been any action by the WFI prior to their president's outburst?

It is known that the WFI had been targeting the private bodies for a while now. In the months leading up to the Olympics, several physios -- employees of OGQ -- who had been working with wrestlers for several years were suddenly denied permission by WFI to enter the national camps which were being conducted in preparation for the Olympics. This was particularly problematic for eventual Olympic silver medalist Ravi Dahiya who ended up missing a preparatory tournament in Rome at the start of the year after picking up an injury during the national camp.

How has the WFI's running been in all of this?

The WFI's own conduct has been less that ideal in this Olympic cycle. At the 2021 Asian Olympic qualifiers for instance, the Federation was only able to book flight tickets for the women's contingent that saw them reach the venue just a few hours before they were expected to compete. That last minute arrival meant that the wrestlers got barely enough sleep and had to run and exercise at the Airport terminal in order to make weight. But while the women's wrestlers at least arrived on time, the same lax travel bookings saw the men's Greco roman coach only arrive following the conclusion of his squad's events.

Is Phogat the only athlete to be sponsored?

All the wrestlers competing at the Olympics are supported in some form over the past several years by either Olympic Gold Quest or JSW. This includes, as mentioned above, Tokyo silver and bronze medalists Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia. Sakshi Malik, the bronze medalist at the 2016 Olympics had been supported by JSW.

What does the Sports Ministry say about private participation?

In a recently published article, Anurag Thakur, the Union minister for youth affairs and sport, had written "we must also onboard corporate India to adopt 'One Sport-One Corporate'". The message from the government seems to be clear -- private, corporate participation is more than welcome. However the minister has not spoken out in this matter which directly deals with a conflict between a federation and private bodies working in the sports field.