Wrestlers vs WFI: How the protest built up over months

Indian wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Anshu Malik stage a protest strike against the Wrestling Federation of India. PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan

Last week, India's top wrestlers sat in a public protest against their federation and its chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, that eventually forced the government to suspend him.

The protest didn't come about overnight; the causes go back several months and span several issues, from sexual exploitation to mental harassment and death threats. Beyond these major allegations, though, there was also a build-up of several other issues, like:

No physio (of their choice) for women wrestlers at Tokyo Olympics

Vinesh went to Tokyo without long-time personal coach Woller Akos and physiotherapist Poornima Ngomdir by her side. With the IOA issuing a limit on the support staff (limited to 33% of the number of athletes), the WFI decided not to approve their accreditation.

The wrestlers were then later allotted a physio, who was originally part of the shooting contingent.

Speaking at the protest last week, Vinesh detailed how she struggled to cut weight days before her opening bout at the Olympics and how the WFI president and general secretary had access to the Games Village (essentially as part of this limited support staff).

WFI vs private sports sponsors like OGQ, JSW

Another major issue in the eyes of the WFI in the Vinesh physio case was that the physio was attached to the private body that backed her, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ). This had been a long-running issue - the WFI had denied OGQ's physios' access to the national camp as well in the run-up to the Olympics.

Post the Olympics, Singh, in an interview with the Indian Express, slammed private bodies like JSW and OGQ for trying to take over the sport and sidelining the WFI. He felt these private bodies only signed on established wrestlers and claimed credit for their successes, thereby taking away the spotlight from the Federation. This despite the fact that (at the time), of the 32 wrestlers supported by OGQ, 23 were below the age of 19.

WFI v Vinesh Phogat - the bout within a larger battle

He also said that he would not allow players sponsored by these bodies to represent the WFI in the future. The Federation said athletes had to seek approval from them before signing any contracts with private bodies.

Wrestlers' post-Olympics ordeal

Three days after the Tokyo Olympics, the WFI issued a show cause notice on Vinesh (for not staying with her teammates at the Games Village, for not training with the Indian wrestlers and for not wearing the official singlet of the Indian contingent), Sonam Malik (for asking a SAI official to collect her passport from the WFI office) and Divya Sain (because her father had apparently criticized WFI in a video).

Vinesh denied all the charges made against her. She recently explained why she did not wear the official singlet, which she said was of "zero quality."

The WFI later forgave the three wrestlers with a condition that they would face a life ban if they did not toe the WFI's line going forward.

In March 2022 Bajrang also lashed out at the WFI for denying him a physiotherapist. The Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist said he hadn't fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained around the Olympics and claimed all his requests for a full-time physiotherapist went unheard.

On their part, the WFI said they had approved a personal physiotherapist - Dr Anand Kumar from the Indian Railways - but he hadn't received permission from his employers and that Bajrang did not want to work with the two other physiotherapists available at the national camp.

No foreign coaches allowed, national camps compulsory

A major decision the WFI took after the Olympics was to not to renew the contracts of the foreign coaches. Those affected included Bajrang (Shako Bentinidis), Vinesh (Woller Akos), Ravi Dahiya (Kamal Malikhov) and Deepak Punia (Murad Gaidarov). Although the concept of personal foreign coaches is new in Indian wrestling, it has also led to positive results: Bajrang medalled at every major event while training with Shako, while Ravi won the Olympic silver under Malikhov. Deepak too became the world junior champion while working with his Russian coach.

However, Singh, in an interview with ESPN, felt a foreign coach should look after "two or three athletes rather than just one athlete."

This was seen as a move to exert further control on the wrestlers and make the national camps a compulsory affair. If athletes don't train with personal coaches, then the national camp was the only other go.

The WFI then added a clause that wrestlers would be eligible to compete for the country only if they were a regular part of the national camp. This was the first time such a diktat had been enforced.

WFI president's misdemeanors

Among the major points of the protest was Singh's way of running the Federation and his supposedly dictatorial style of functioning. Take these two incidents:

In August 2022, he stopped a bout mid-way so that a few seers from Ayodhya could bless the wrestlers. This was a final in the women's selection trials (for the World Championships). The seers blessed them and a round of pictures was taken before the wrestlers could resume their bout.

Back in 2021, Singh slapped a wrestler during the U15 Nationals in Ranchi, an incident caught on video. It's reported that the wrestler requested Singh to allow him to compete despite being overage - because he trained in Singh's akhara in Gonda. Singh took issue with that.