At 6 PM on Saturday evening in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi stadium, Antim Panghal pinned her third opponent of the day inside 40 seconds. It was the last in a series of comprehensive performances, one that cemented her claim as the best Indian wrestler in the women’s 53kg category on the day. But while Antim might have won each of her bouts on the mat, it is clear that her fight outside it has only just started.
The point of the competition Antim was competing in was ostensibly to pick India’s representatives in the women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling categories for the Asian Games. All of India’s representatives, that is with the exception of the women’s 53kg category. In this particular weight category, India’s representative will be Vinesh Phogat, who was selected automatically despite not taking part in the trials.
That much was made clear within a few minutes of Antim’s final win as news came in from New Delhi High Court that her petition challenging Vinesh’s automatic selection had been dismissed – the court declaring that it would not interfere in athlete selection. As such Antim will only have to be satisfied with being named a ‘standby’ – her only chance of competing in her first Asian Games, depending on Vinesh withdrawing.
Antim is far from being satisfied though. “Why should I stay in the standby group?” she wondered after wining her final. “I gave trials. I won them. If anyone should stay in the standby group, it should be the person who didn’t give the trials,” she stated matter of factly.
“My fight isn’t over. I haven’t got the decision I wanted in the high court. Now we will take the matter to the Supreme Court,” she said.
If Antim doesn’t make the Indian wrestling team that competes in the Asian Games in September, no one can accuse her of a lack of effort. Over the past week, the 18-year-old did everything she could to present her case for a spot in the Indian wrestling team.
Trouble had started brewing after the ad-hoc committee that runs Indian wrestling, following the suspension of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) based on allegations of abuse made against its erstwhile president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, announced that two time world medallist Vinesh was being automatically selected as India’s representative in the women’s 53kg category as was Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia in the men’s 65kg category.
Neither wrestlers have taken part in competition this year even as they protested in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against alleged harassment of women wrestlers by the former WFI chief. It was a decision Antim protested vociferously before eventually going to court. She had her point.
Antim is the only Indian woman wrestler to win a gold at the junior world championships, which she did last year. With victories over the reigning world champion Dominique Parrish of USA and a silver medal on debut at the Asian Championships earlier this year, Antim is seen by many the heir apparent to Phogat, a two time world medallist who, owing to the the time she had to sit in protest and consequently away from competition and training, is nowhere near her best right now. Nevertheless both were chosen as automatic picks for the Asian Games, with the ad-hoc committee citing a rule set by the WFI that stated the selection committee had the right to pick elite players who had won medals at the World and Olympic level..
It is a situation that Antim feels is patently unfair. “I fought three bouts today. I would have fought four bouts but I got a bye in the first round. What was the point of fighting three bouts. What was the point of conducting trials in the 53kg category in the first case if you are anyway going to send someone else for the Asian Games,” she said.
Antim questioned the rules by which it was decided to send Vinesh for the Asian Games.
“The committee is saying that Vinesh has been sent according to the rules. But then didn’t the rules apply to (2016 Olympic bronze medalist) Sakshi (Malik) didi, or (2020 Olympic bronze medallist) Ravi (Dahiya) or (2019 World silver medallist) Deepak (Punia). Didn’t they all decide to compete in trials and not take an automatic selection? Why is it only Bajrang and Vinesh who got exemptions?” she questioned.
Antim said she had prepared for the selection trials in far from ideal conditions. “For two days my parents were in Delhi. My coach was in Delhi trying to get the committee to withdraw the exemption given to Vinesh didi from the trials. The last two days practise should be good but my coach and parents were both here. I didn’t have a coach for the last three days before my trials. I wasn’t able to prepare as well as I should have,” she said.
Even as she came out victorious, Antim addressed Vinesh directly. “I want to tell Vinesh didi only one thing. Please give trials. I was selected in trials on the 22nd. Everyone knew there will be trials on the 22nd. What is the point of giving trials if when you win you aren’t selected. What is the point of me wrestling. What is the point of my mother and father coming from our village and taking so much burden to move to Hisar so that I could continue wrestling. I’ve told Vinesh only one thing. Give trials and let the person who wins go. I have nothing against Vinesh didi. You are a very good wrestler. You might be the best and you have won a lot of medals but at least compete in a bout. Not just with me but with all the wrestlers. If you win, then I will say you are the best,” she said.
Antim said the fact that her senior compatriot was being sent automatically could set a precedent that could continue indefinitely.
“I just want to say that right now Vinesh didi is going directly to the Asian Games. If she wins a medal at the Asian Games, then you will say send her directly to the next competition as well. Then I will be left competing in India only. If the next tournament comes, again they will say ‘we will send Vinesh’. I am also a world junior champion. But how will we know whether we are good or not if only she goes?” questioned Antim.
Despite the unfavourable verdict she received on Saturday, Antim said she wasn’t done yet. “The courts have rejected our demands, we will keep protesting. The coach will decide how we will continue. But we will continue till we get justice.The next move is the Supreme Court. After winning I am still just a standby but I will give my 100 percent to this fight. My fight will continue,” she said.
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