Indian wrestlers' fight for their peers evokes spirit of Socrates and Corinthians


On Friday, Brazilian football club Corinthians announced that their jerseys for the new season would have two words inscribed on them: Corinthiana Democracia. It's a tribute to the team and players that, 40 years ago, spearheaded one of the greatest acts of social dissent ever seen in sport. It started out critical of the autocratic ways of Brazilian football before becoming a sharply focused protest against the repressive, brutal military junta ruling the country at the time. Before the final of the state championship in 1983, the team, led by Socrates, entered the field holding a giant banner that read: "Ganhar ou Perder, Mas Sempre com Democracia" ("win or lose, but always with democracy").

What Corinthiana Democracia, as the movement was called, did was embody everything seen as the great values of team-sport. They recognised that they didn't live in a bubble, that just playing-and-winning-and-playing-some-more was nowhere near enough. They realised the fundamental hypocrisy in keeping politics and sport separate and so they didn't just shut up and play. They were winners, yes, but most importantly they understood that the word 'team' meant standing up for each other and for those who could not stand up for themselves.

That moment from 1983, and the tribute to it, appear more poignant now in the context of the struggle of India's wrestlers and their fight for justice.

Wrestling is a deeply individual sport, one athlete against another all day every day. But Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik have risen above that to stand for 'team wrestling', to fight for their fellow athletes against an all-powerful political leader and an all-powerful system. They seek no individual vindication. They seek no promotion, no laurels.

They have put their careers, their futures, on the line because they believe what they are fighting for -- the simple concept of safety for women wrestlers and justice for those wronged -- is worth it.

These champions know there is a possibility they may never return to the sporting glories that made them who they are, one they spent an entire lifetime training for, but they persisted anyway. Just like when Socrates (then captain of the Brazilian national team) and his Corinthians teammates in 1982 wore a jersey beseeching people to vote (in Brazil's first multiparty elections in two decades). But isn't this what sport, what team sport, is all about?

All this stands in stark contrast to the silence, indifference, or worse of India's other sporting "greats".

When Sourav Ganguly made Steve Waugh wait a couple of minutes under the morning heat of the Kolkata sun, India hailed it as an act of standing up against the bully. On Friday, Ganguly had this to say about the wrestlers' protest: "Let them fight their battle. I don't know what's happening there, I just read in the newspapers. In the sports world, I realised one thing that you don't talk about things you don't have complete knowledge of."

Captain. Leader. Legend. Let them fight their battle.

The silence of others has been even more deafening. He may be the greatest cricketer India has ever seen but Sachin Tendulkar hasn't deemed it necessary to weigh in on this issue in anyway. "Many congratulations" when they win, nothing when they are suffering.

There is a rich irony in all this. In the fact that it is the individual athlete who is showcasing the greatest values that team sport is supposed to inculcate. Those trained to seek individual glory are now battling collectively for their team's victory.

So as the political world closes in, as attempts are made to bury this issue, the wrestlers fight on. They are forming committees now, amongst themselves and amongst those non-sport leaders who now stand with them. They say they will continue their fight till Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is behind bars.

Last year, the story of sexual abuse within the Indian Under-17 women's football team was shunted aside, the issue buried under the carpet. These wrestlers are making sure that everyone hears what they have to say. By taking it public, by making personal sacrifices, by sitting on the road, they have made it a national issue.

One of the dictionary definitions of "Corinthian" refers to Corinthian spirit: involving the highest standards of amateur sportsmanship. Socrates and his footballers did it 40 years ago. Our wrestlers are doing it now. Corinthiana Democracia, Dangal style.

If only the great heroes of India's team sports could watch and learn.