The Delhi High Court on Thursday issued a notice to the WFI ad-hoc panel over the exemption granted to wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat from Asian Games trials. Wrestlers Antim Panghal and Sujeet Kalkal had filed a petition on Wednesday, demanding a fair selection process for the quadrennial showpiece.
"What is the basis of the selection of these two persons other than the fact that they are good sportsmen? Have you done any kind of selection process? The entire case it seems is that there has to be some kind of trial," said Justice Subramonium Prasad. A further hearing is scheduled for Friday, with the WFI tasked with furnishing a reply regarding their rulebook and selection criteria.
The petition, moved by advocate Hrishikesh Baruah and Akshay Kumar, demanded that the directive issued by the IOA ad-hoc committee with regards to the two categories (men's freestyle 65kg and women's 53kg) be quashed and the exemption granted to Bajrang and Vinesh be set aside.
They also demanded that the trials should be held in a fair manner, without grating any exemption to any wrestler and the whole process be videographed.
Vinesh (53kg) and Bajrang (65kg) were given direct entries for the Asian Games by the Indian Olympic Association's ad-hoc committee on Tuesday, while other wrestlers will have to book their places in the Indian squad through selection trials on July 22 and 23.
In addition to the petition, many junior wrestlers, their parents and coaches reached the IOA headquarters here on Thursday, demanding the withdrawal of the exemption, a day after their protest in Haryana's Hisar. Around 150 people, including family members of the wrestlers, were seeking a meeting with Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President P T Usha and ad-hoc panel chief Bhupender Singh Bajwa.
"All we want is a meeting with IOA top brass. We will not accept any biased decision. This is wrong. We are here to request the panel to withdraw exemption granted to Bajrang and Vinesh," Vikas Bhardhwaj, the coach of Antim Panghal, told PTI.
The 19-year-old Panghal, who competes in the same category as Vinesh, asked on what basis the latter was given a direct entry into the Indian squad despite. Vinesh has not competed since winning bronze at the World Championships in September last year, but the Wresting Federation of India's (WFI) rulebook states that reigning Olympic and World medallists can be exempted from trials.
"Vinesh Phogat has received a direct entry for the Asian Games when she had not done any practice in the last year. She doesn't have any achievement in the last year," Panghal said in a video.
Antim had won silver at the 2023 Asian Championships - an event Vinesh had missed due to the protests against the WFI.
"Last year, in the Junior World Championships, I won a gold medal and became the first woman wrestler from India to achieve this feat. In the 2023 Asian Championships, I won a silver medal, but Vinesh has no achievement to show in the last year. She was also injured," she said.
"Sakshi Malik has also won an Olympic medal, she too is not being sent. What is so special about Vinesh that she is being sent? Just organise trials. I am not saying that I am the only one who can beat Vinesh. There are several other girls who can beat her," she said.
Antim alleged that she was cheated during the Birmingham Commonwealth Games trials last year. "When the CWG trials were taking place, I had bouts against her, then also they (officials) cheated me. I said koi nahin (it's okay), I will try to qualify for the Olympics by going to the (Hangzhou) Asian Games. But now they are saying they will send Vinesh. This is not done.
"They are also saying that the one who goes for the Asian Games will also go for the World Championships and the one who wins a medal at the Worlds will go to the Olympics (in Paris). We have also been training hard for years. So, what about us? Should we leave wrestling?"
Kalkal, also U20 world championship bronze medallist, said that there are at least 5-6 wrestlers in the 65kg freestyle category who are capable of beating Bajrang.
"I had wrestled with Bajrang a year back during the (Birmingham) Commonwealth Games trials, which was very close. During the trials, Bajrang was handed a direct semifinals entry and we had to contest all the bouts," said Kalkal, the reigning senior national champion and last year's Junior Asian gold medallist.
Proving his point further, Kalkal said he had recently defeated American John Michael Diakomihalis by a comprehensive 8-2 margin while Bajrang had lost to the same wrestler by technical superiority in the World Championships last year.
"For the World Championships too (in 2022), Bajrang was given entry to compete without trials. The American wrestler (Yianni Diakomihalis) against whom Bajrang lost 0-10, I have beaten him the World Ranking series 8-2." Sujeet had won that Ranking Series event held in Tunis in July 2022.
"I don't say that only I can beat Bajrang. There are no less than 5-6 wrestlers in our weight category who can beat Bajrang. That's why all the wrestlers should get equal opportunity and a fair trial should be held.
"It is also my dream to become an Olympic champion but if these wrestlers (like Bajrang and Vinesh) keep getting direct entries, then how will we fulfil our dreams," he added.
(With inputs from PTI)