With the Asian Games just a few months away, Indian wrestling has once again found itself in the midst of self-inflicted controversy – this time around selection for the continental games. Although the Asian Games are one of the most important tournaments for Indian wrestlers, many of whom have been “preparing all their lives” for the opportunity to take part in this competition, the ad hoc body that currently runs the WFI decided to give direct entries in India’s two deepest weight categories — Men’s 65kg Freestyle and Women’s 53kg. It was understood that the two wrestlers who would be given exemptions were Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Worlds medalist Vinesh Phogat (53kg). In fairness to them, the two have been India’s No. 1 choice for close to seven years. However, they have not competed at all this year, even as they were protesting against the WFI and its president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
The exemption given to the two wrestlers was not well received. Upcoming wrestlers Antim (53kg) and Sujeet (65kg) moved the Delhi High Court. To add salt to the wounds, the Delhi HC ratified the selection committee’s decision. Antim went on to win the trials but had to settle as a standby, going by the release issued.
To say what happened with the selection process for the Asian Games is an understatement. To be clear, it isn’t just the WFI or an ad hoc body that is at fault. Dodgy selection processes are almost the norm in the majority of National Sports Federations in India for major events. While this is especially true in events like the Asian Games, where it is up to the national federation to nominate athletes who can take part, it does happen even in tournaments like the Olympics, which have set a qualification standard of their own.
Coming back to the question of trials, one thing is clear: It’s crucial to have a selection process that ensures fairness, transparency, and meritocracy in sports. Very little of that is actually followed in practice by Indian NSFs.
Rules are often ambiguous. If in written, they are often changed. The selection procedure is poorly communicated. Take for instance, the wrestling selection episode. The selection trials for the Asian Games were originally supposed to be held in June. However, the authorities decided to hold it later in order to accommodate the wrestlers, who were the frontrunners in the protest. But the actual dates of the trial were only officially communicated less than two weeks before they were to be held.
Wrestlers have to cut weight before any competition, and this is a process that can’t be done at the last minute. Furthermore, there is another set of trials to select the team for the World Championships. The dates for this too have not been announced, although they are expected to be in the middle of August. This means that wrestlers will now have to cut weight once more in a short space of time. Cutting weight is a gruelling process and scheduling two of them within a few weeks of each other only increases the chances of injury.
It isn’t just the ad hoc committee that is to be blamed for this. The WFI has previously scheduled trials just 10–12 days before the start of major events, making it almost impossible for wrestlers to peak when it matters.
Also, it isn’t just wrestling where such episodes occur. A few years back, the Athletics Federation of India made Murali Sreeshankar go through a fitness test before finalising his entry to the Tokyo Olympics. It was done a few days before the Games. At the time, when he was supposed to be mentally healthy and focused on his debut at the Summer Games, the long jumper was worried if he would be allowed to board the flight to Tokyo. What if he gets injured during the trials so close to a major competition or does not meet the set standard even though it was met earlier?
The situation is such that many athletes hide their injuries to make the cut and go to competition. They are so scared of landing in this pressure situation ahead of events like the World Championships, Asian Games or Olympics that they compete through those minor niggles.
All of this undermines the nation’s sporting aspirations.
More recently, the AFI has asked Jeswin Aldrin and Praveen Chithravel to give ‘fitness trials’ before allowing them to take part in the world championships, despite the fact that both have already qualified and are in fact the current national record holders.
It is understandable that there is public scrutiny, and India is a passionate country, more so after Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal at the Olympics. However, it should motivate the NSFs to change their archaic practices to a more result-based approach. The lack of standardisation has led to inconsistent trial procedures leading to confusion, disparities and controversies.
It all starts at the grassroots level, where political influence and nepotism are common practices. It is the same people who then hold authoritative positions in NSFs and replicate them at the highest level.
There’s no reason why a fair form of trials cannot be conducted in India. Trials provide an open platform for athletes to showcase their skills and compete fairly for spots on the national team, eliminating any biases or favouritism.
Having merit-based selection ensures that athletes are chosen based on their performance and abilities, encouraging the growth of talent and motivating athletes to excel. Trials help select athletes who can best represent the country on the international stage, raising the nation’s pride and enhancing its chances of success.
A look at how other countries conduct their trials shows us it’s possible for Indian sports to do so too. In big sporting nations like Russia, Japan, and the US, the trials are held a couple of months before a major competition. However, there is a constant evaluation of the performances of athletes, and only the best are allowed to compete in the trials.
In Japan, the wrestlers allowed to participate in the World Championship trials were the medal winners of the Meiji Cup and the Emperor Cup. The result of this was that the best fought against the best, and the outcome was that the likes of Olympic champions Risako Kawai and Yukako Kawai missed out on making the team.
Even in India, there are some NSFs that are attempting to follow a systematic approach towards selection. The shooting body, NRAI, has regular trials, with the team being picked on the basis of the average of the best four scores from the last five competitions. This way, shooters aren’t just picked on the basis of how they have performed on one single day but on how they have performed consistently. At the same time, proven performers are also considered, with a predetermined weightage given to athletes who have won quotas at the World Championships.
Another way of selecting a team is the route taken by the Boxing Federation of India. As per the new selection policy, there will be an evaluation of all the boxers for a month, with fitness, discipline, and sparring sessions all being taken into account. The selection policy was set by high performance director Bernard Dunne, who successfully employed this mechanism in boxing powerhouse Ireland. But even though this mechanism has yielded rewards, with India’s best ever results at the 2023 Men’s Boxing World Championships, there have been some complaints and now even a court case from disgruntled boxers.
While it’s impossible to keep everyone happy, the fact is that India’s national sports federations must try their best to keep the selection process as fair as possible. They must address the challenges and reform their dodgy trials system to ensure that deserving athletes have an equal opportunity to represent the country on the international stage. By doing so, India can bolster its sporting prowess and build a strong foundation for future generations of athletes.
The author is the head of Sports Excellence & Scouting at JSW Sports.
- Maxwell innings probably the greatest-ever in ODIs, says Pat Cummins after win against Afghanistan
- James Hillier: Realistic target for Paris 2024 is to get as many athletes into the final as possible
- Glenn Maxwell 201 barges into greatest ODI World Cup knocks chat as Australia beats Afghanistan to qualify for semifinals
- Barcelona victory ‘important for Ukrainian football’, says Shakhtar’s Pusic
- ‘No excuses’ for Howe after injury-hit Newcastle fall in Dortmund