Sportstar Podcast: Asian Games trials tests India’s hurting wrestling community

In this week’s episode of Sportstar Podcast, Santadeep Dey, Nihit Sachdeva and Jonathan Selvaraj discuss the highs and lows of the recently concluded wrestling selection trials in New Delhi. Listen to the episode here:

Published : Jul 27, 2023 21:05 IST - 6 MINS READ

The sport of wrestling in India has been rocked by a number of controversies in the recent past. From a president - Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh - who has been allegedly involved in episodes of sexual harassment of female athletes, to nationwide protests. Now, the burning topic is a few wrestlers being exempted from Asian Games trials.

In this week’s episode of Sportstar Podcast, Santadeep Dey, Nihit Sachdeva and Jonathan Selvaraj discuss the highs and lows of the recently concluded wrestling selection trials in New Delhi. Listen to the episode here:

Santadeep - Jonathan, you were our on-ground correspondent at the trials in Delhi. Before I go into the details, I just wanted to ask you about the overall media coverage the event got. Because it was widely reported that it would be a no-entry, no-media event but ultimately it seemed there was some kind of access which was granted?

Jonathan - Initially there was a lot of confusion whether there would be media allowed or not. If you spoke to SAI, they said that the ad-hoc committee, which has been looking into the sport ever since the Wrestling Federation India was removed from conducting day-to-day activities of wrestling, would be involved. The ad-hoc committee said the opposite. Everyone was passing the buck to each other. And even until early in the morning, there was no clarity on whether media would be allowed. Of course, after the event started, first few guys started getting in and I saw people climbing the walls since all of the gates were locked at IG Stadium. There were a few heated moments where people said, “It is a public stadium, we should be allowed,” and eventually, the powers that decided whether media is allowed or not kind of gave up. Obviously, there was a lot of interest in these particular selection trials because one, it was for the Asian Games and second, it was that the whole build up to this was very controversial. Two of the country’s top wrestlers were given exemptions from taking part in it. So, there was that whole bit of, “Should they be allowed? Should they get an exemption” Couple of athletes went to court. One of the two athletes who went to court won the trial.

ALSO READ:Wrestling trials for Asian Games: Upsets galore show past has little influence on the present

Nihit - There were three faces of the protest - Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik - but the exemptions were given to just two of them. Why just those two and not Sakshi? Also, you have been covering the sport for many years. Why is there some sort of chaos at every wrestling trial?

Jonathan - Most sporting events in India take place with some level of chaos. I have seen Nilgais wandering into the shotgun shooting range in the middle of a national championship. Delhi has a large Nilgai population and those animals are really risking their lives just to get better grazing with the shotgun going on 300, from them. You know, one pellet can fly in the wrong direction and then, we got a case on our hands. We have boxing where you have people coming in to cheer their athletes and things get heated. In wrestling, I would say that these were actually much calmer trials than others I’ve seen. We had one dog that ran into the mat in the middle of Aman Sehrawat’s and Shubham’s bout in the semifinal. It was actually as good as the final and it should have been the final, in fact. Apart from that, things were very peaceful. Wrestling Federation India President would take the mix and he would give live commentary on what’s going on and shout at the spectators to make way. We didn’t have any of that. No one came to the mat to take selfies with the players. There were no fights, which you have seen happen in wrestling trials before. In the last Commonwealth Games trials, one referee got slapped by a wrestler. None of that happened this time. In terms of the wrestling trials and wrestling tournaments in India, I would say this is probably the best one I’ve seen which is actually because the bar is really low, so I’m not sure what you can make of that, but it was honestly the best one I’ve seen.

Some people are taking exemptions, on the face of it, it’s extremely problematic because the entire time you were protesting on the roads. You were saying we are doing this for the younger wrestlers. We are doing this so that they don’t have to go through what we are going through. Then you’re doing exactly the same thing which happened during your time. Sakshi actually very quickly realized that the optics were terrible and she came out and said that the ad-hoc committee, which runs the sport, asked her to send an e-mail saying that she wanted the exemption and they would give it to her. By that, she’s implying that the other two wrestlers did send the e-mail, which she didn’t because she felt that she doesn’t want to take advantage of exemptions like this and if she had to fight, she’ll fight. And to her credit, she didn’t take the exemption, so she decided she wasn’t ready to compete. She wasn’t fit enough to compete. There are other wrestlers who could have taken exemptions as well. Ravi Dahiya could have taken an exemption as well. He is an Olympic Silver medallist, which is the best medal we have got since Sushil in wrestling. And Ravi didn’t take exemption either. He competed at the trials despite having a knee injury. His knee injury got aggravated with this and he’s ruled out of the rest of the season, so he won’t take part in the trials for the World Championships either. So, people had the chance to get exemptions. They didn’t and that was the right call. If you feel that you’re not ready to take part in trials for whatever reason. With whatever good purpose, you were not able to train to take part in it. Then that’s the sort of price that you have to pay for protesting for what you believe in. You shouldn’t have it all your way. And yesterday, Bajrang and Vinesh, went on Facebook live and they were defending what had happened and it was very confusing because at the same time, they were saying we are happy that these young wrestlers are protesting and they’re going to court. But just not happy that they’re doing it against you. From where I stand, they have lost a lot of support amongst the wrestlers themselves, amongst people who generally were on their side until like a few weeks ago.

For more, listen to the episode.

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