Wrestler vs Wrestler : Battle lines drawn as Asian Games trials have only losers, no winners

(L-3R) Indian wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Anshu Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik along with others wrestlers take part in an ongoing protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), in January in New Delhi. Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

And so, it's now wrestler vs wrestler, just not on the mat.

The spaces between the ambitions and concerns of our best wrestlers and the gross malfunctioning of the Wrestling Federation of India, and the chaos it created, have been expertly exploited to create faultlines and make divide-and-rule - that favourite of the political toolkit - so much simpler.

Sakshi Malik, one of the three main protesting wrestlers, called it as she saw it: "This is to spark a fight between the wrestlers, because of which the name of two people have been sent directly."

At the end of the day, this is always where it was going to end up, wasn't it? At a place where the only ones getting hurt, the only ones paying a price, the only ones being scapegoated are the athletes themselves. They, and the sport, are the losers.

On Thursday, 21-year-old Anshu Malik, Olympian already and one of the early protestors against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh in January, tweeted this: "The biggest dream of a player is to win medals for his country in games like Olympics and Asian Games and make all the citizens proud, but what if the rights of those players are killed. The demand of trial of junior players is absolutely correct, and it is their right. I support the demand of junior players."

She then tagged the Prime Minister's office, sports minister, the president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), two leading dailies and ended with an "#Adhoc committee."

This came a day after Antim Panghal and Sujeet Kalkal moved the Delhi High Court demanding trials happen. The court has since sought a response from the Wrestling Federation of India and will hear the matter again on Friday.

What is this injustice that these three promising young wrestlers are claiming? It's the decision of the ad-hoc committee to provide Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia with exemptions from selection trials for the Asian Games. This directly affects Antim as she fights in Vinesh's weight category and Sujeet as he competes in Bajrang's.

The ad-hoc committee made this decision based on a clause in the WFI selection regulations (Point 3 - periodicity of trials): "Asian Games: The Selection Trials in all weight categories are mandatory, however, the Selection Committee will have the discretion to select the iconic players like medallists of Olympic / World Championship without trials provided recommendation by Chief Coach / Foreign Expert."

Vinesh and Bajrang are both World Championship medallists, reigning ones at that, and Bajrang is, of course, an Olympic medallist too. So, by exercising their discretion, the committee has gone by the letter of the law. In fact, such an exemption had been provided for the 2018 Asian Games too.

But why did Vinesh and Bajrang seek an exemption this time? Well, they hadn't.

The ad-hoc committee had kept July 15 as the date of trials initially because that's the date for submission of participating squad lists to the Asian Games. They then moved the trial dates to July 22 and 23 after reportedly getting an extension from the Asian Games organisers ("reportedly" because neither the Asiad nor the IOA have officially confirmed this one-week extension till date).

In the middle of all this, and after suspending their protest against Singh in mid-June, the six wrestlers involved throughout had written to the ad-hoc committee seeking an extension of the date for the selection trials considering they needed to return to some level of match fitness after months on the streets while in protest.

Instead of providing the extension -- since they were bound by the submission deadline -- the ad-hoc committee chose to provide exemptions to two eligible wrestlers (even though a third, Sakshi Malik, would have been eligible for it too considering she's an Olympic medallist).

Cue, chaos.

Think of it from Antim's, or Sujeet's, point of view and you can see why this decision would infuriate them. Antim, a former U20 World champion, participated in the Asian Wrestling Championships in April this year (after Vinesh's decision to not fight till Singh was investigated) and won silver in the competition - proving her credentials for the upcoming Asiad. What more could she have possibly done?

Meanwhile, reigning U23 Asian champion Sujeet may not have the senior-level medal-winning pedigree of his colleague, but he has the advantage of having been in training day-in, day-out for the whole of the year.

This is something neither Vinesh nor Bajrang have done -- after an immensely successful 2022 (Commonwealth Games golds and World Championships bronzes for both), they sacrificed the vast majority of the first half of 2023 in pursuit of justice. It is clear from their letter to the ad-hoc committee that neither had sought an exemption, but the fact remains that they have now accepted it.

What complicates things further is that the World Championships will happen a fortnight before the Asian Games, and the ad-hoc committee has set a mid-August date for the trials for that competition - no exemptions provided. What happens here if Antim beats Vinesh? Or Sujeet beats Bajrang?

To make things even more messy, the IOA said on Wednesday evening that the final "selection" of wrestlers would be made prior to the departure of the team to China (because the Asian Games deadline means nothing?). A few hours later they released a correction to the statement, saying a final "assessment" of the wrestling team will made prior to departure.

It doesn't make sense to us, either.

Meanwhile Singh, the man at the centre of it all, has been granted bail twice in the past three days - with the public prosecutor so ambivalent about the whole thing on Thursday that the judge had to ask him "Are you opposing [bail] or not?" (Answer: he was not)

In between hearings Singh was quoted as saying that these exemptions "saddened him", that they "hurt wrestling," and asked rhetorical questions: "When all this (protest) began (in January) I used to think why is it all happening?" We'll leave it to you to read between those lines.

So, here we are. With the WFI mess nowhere near being sorted -- election dates have not even been announced officially (we don't even know if the third member, a retired judge, has joined the ad-hoc committee); this ongoing confusion surrounding the Asian Games trials; Singh's shadow continuing to loom large -- we're back at that dreaded (yet eerily familiar for Indian sport) place. Where there are no winners, no losers... just a constant state of confusion and chaos and toxicity.