'We listen to the voices of the athletes': UWW chief talks wrestlers' protests, WFI suspension

Indian wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Sangeeta Phogat struggle as they are detained by the police while attempting to march to India's new parliament, during a protest against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Singh. ARUN THAKUR/AFP via Getty Images

Even as India plays host to the 140th International Olympic Council session in Mumbai, the country's wrestling federation (WFI) remains suspended by the global body (United World Wrestling) for not conducting elections within the stipulated time. This comes after months of protest from India's leading wrestlers against the ex WFI chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, which eventually led to a case being filed against him.

On the sidelines of the Assembly, UWW president Nenad Lalovic spoke to ESPN India on the wrestlers' protest, the suspension of the WFI and more:

Thoughts on the current situation of the Wrestling Federation of India:

Let's hope the situation does not remain confused. There must be a hearing of the Supreme Court on the 3rd of November and after that, I believe the elections will be organized in a month or so in order to have normal governance of the federation.

The Federation has been suspended because there was no governance. The Ministry was obliged to impose a committee and then the ad hoc committee ruled by the IOA. Wrestling activities, very specifically, are difficult to be ruled from the outside. So, the people involved in wrestling should find a solution themselves in order to assist their athletes.

I know the competition system is complicated with the states. India is a huge country with a huge number of athletes, but that complicates additionally the selection and preparation of athletes. For that, a strong national federation is needed, otherwise, the athletes suffer. By suspending the Federation, we did not suspend the athletes. And you know that they are competing and will continue to compete no matter what happens.

We will be the happiest to lift the suspension as soon as elections are held, and we know who our interlocutors are. Besides this, it's a huge administration work behind all the activity of the Federation. At this moment, the admin work is done partially by the ad hoc committee but very much by UWW.

Why UWW? Because each of our members has direct access to our systems like inscription of athletes, purchase of licensing, insurance policies, link to license and so on...it's complicated to explain but easy to do if you are skilled to do that. But of course, there must be some people as the administrators of the national federation and that's why we are waiting for elections.

Was it a bit too late when UWW intervened and suspended the WFI? What led UWW to suspend the WFI?

We, first of all, are not interfering in the internal affairs of any state or NOC. At the moment, no interlocutor is present as president or general secretary and hence we reacted.

We followed all that happened during the wrestlers' protest and so on. We have concerns about the well-being of our athletes. This is another possibility to have a suspension. Now this case is followed by the Indian authorities, and we will not interfere in that except if athletes approach us again for some reason. We listen to the voices of the athletes no matter where they come from. I think everything that's been done recently is in the right direction and that will soon solve the problems of Indian wrestling.

Will UWW continue the suspension if athletes approach again?

Not really. If they approach, depends on what they approach, the issues. If it's only about, say, discussions and preferences to those who are going to lead the Federation, this is again an internal affair that we will not interfere in.

If the elections are democratically performed, then we will have no objections. We will send an observer. After the elections, if there are no complaints from stakeholders, then we will lift the suspension almost immediately. We do not need to make it longer if the problem is solved.

Have you set a deadline to complete the process?

We cannot interfere in the legal affairs of the state. We are just waiting for the outcome.

The IOC is also following the whole process, they are aware of what's happening. It has been very public since Jan/Feb.

The WFI is not directly linked to the IOC, it's linked through the UWW. The IOC is absolutely backing up our position and our act when it is about the actual suspension of WFI. You have to understand that it is very uncomfortable for me to visit India for the IOC session and my own Federation is suspended. I don't feel very comfortable, I would like the situation to be different.

What needs to be done for the WFI to be reinstated?

Just democratic elections with normal outcomes and names. Then we can give access to the systems.

They cannot have the elections before they solve all the legal problems. As soon as they have elections, the suspension will be lifted. There is no reason to keep the suspension. India is a huge wrestling country and every wrestler who will not compete because of these issues, it's a catastrophe for India and us.

Will there be a change in the safeguarding mechanism?

This is also something that we will overwatch and control. We have our safeguarding officers and we will certainly take care of this. We have formed two of our safeguarding officers who will work closely with the National Federation and instruct them on how they have to behave. The athletes will be told where they can come and explain their problems.

Do you have concerns, as the UWW president, that such things are happening?

We have not had too many problems of this kind in the past. But as soon as we heard that there was a possibility of such bad behaviour, we reacted immediately. But from the moment that the authorities took action, we cannot continue to interfere.

We can only eventually speak with the athletes and try to understand their problems. The situation is very specific and in different cultures, the specificity of the problem is different. So, we have to adapt also to the nation, to the culture. But we have now educated people in that sense, and we believe we will be stronger to protect the athletes.