AC down, judge punched, cops called, wrestler banned: Trial by ire in Delhi to pick CWG team

The national wrestling trials for India's Commonwealth Games team ended with a series of controversial proceedings at the KD Jadhav Indoor Stadium in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Bajrang Punia will represent India in the men’s 65kg at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games after beating Vishal Kaliraman 2-1 in the final of the selection trials in Delhi.   -  Jonathan Selvaraj

The wrestling trials at New Delhi's KD Jadhav stadium on Tuesday were meant to select a team for the Commonwealth Games. While the team was selected, it was barely the most noteworthy event of the day — topped by a lifetime ban on international wrestler Satender Malik after he allegedly assaulted a judge over a contentious decision.

Doors to the wrestling hall at the stadium were barred and strictly guarded at the start of the selection trials. Only wrestlers who had to contest a bout and their coaches were to be allowed in.

The last time trials were held here, an unmanageable crowd had gathered next to the mat. The wrestling federation, which has often faced controversial situations, was careful this time. But while the doors were locked, the proverbial horse bolted anyway.

By the end of the day, everything that could have gone wrong did. The air conditioning at the indoor hall broke down, leaving wrestlers towelling away streams of sweat while gasping for breath. There were the inevitable controversies over scoring that boiled over. One wrestler would punch holes in the drywall in disappointment over a loss. Another, Satender Malik, punched a judge after a dispute over a judgement. A high profile bout would get halted in the ensuing chaos. Finally, the police would be called, an FIR registered and Malik slapped with a lifetime ban by the federation.

Basically, a typical day in the office for probably the most incident-prone sport federation in India.

It says something about the nature of wrestling in India that Malik's alleged assault on judge Jagbir Singh wasn't either the first case of an assault at a wrestling event, a wrestling event at the KD Jadhav Stadium, or a wrestling event held at the KD Jadhav stadium for the stated purpose of selecting a team for the Commonwealth Games. That would be when Parveen Rana was jumped by a number of spectators in 2018, angered allegedly by his spirited bout against Sushil Kumar. However, this is the first instance of an assault on a judge at the venue.  

READ: Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang, Deepak earn Indian wrestling CWG berths

Tuesday's fracas started with about 18 seconds remaining in  Air Force Wrestler Malik's bout against Mohit Dahiya in the final of the 125kg competition.

Malik led 3-0 but was taken down for two points and then seemingly pushed out of bounds for another one point by Mohit.

When the referees scored only a single point, Mohit challenged the decision. The matter was reviewed on video and in addition to confirming the original decision, a penalty point was added to Malik's score.

The WFI (Wrestling Federation of India) president Brij Bhushan Sharan then got involved and decided another judge, Jagbir Singh, would review the decision. Jagbir though wasn't the first choice. "There was another judge but he declined because he was from the same village as Satender," Jagbir would say later. Jagbir confirmed three points for Mohit and in the process earned Malik's wrath.

Video credit: Jonathan Selvaraj

He stomped over the mat, over where Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya was wrestling a marquee bout against national champion Aman Sehrawat, and swing at the judge. "He used foul language and also hit me on the right side of the face," Jagbir said later.

Eventually, Malik would be ushered off and the bout between Ravi and Sehrawat resumed. Jagbir later filed an FIR against Malik at IP Estate police station. The federation too slapped a sanction on Malik. "We have issued an instantaneous lifetime ban on him," said WFI secretary Vinod Tomar.

Incidentally, it is likely that the federation will look into the role of the referees who inexplicably scored just the one point for Mohit to begin with.

While the federation might have hoped for cooler heads to prevail at the venue on Tuesday, that was going to be unlikely since there was no air conditioning in the 15,000-seater stadium.

"This is going to be a problem," WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh had told a few employees of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) on Tuesday morning when it was clear there would be no air conditioning for the day.

"We requested the venue for the trials three weeks ago, but were only told this morning that the air conditioning had broken down," a WFI official told Sportstar. A SAI official who did not want to be named said, "The motor of the AC stopped working in the morning... Hopefully, the AC will be back before tomorrow's trials." Trials to select the team for under-17 Asian Championships are scheduled at the venue on Wednesday.

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While the federation might have hoped cooler heads had prevailed on Tuesday, that was going to be unlikely since there was no air conditioning in the 15000-seater stadium to begin with.   -  Jonathan Selvaraj

The non-functioning AC made life difficult for the wrestlers in Delhi's sweltering heat. "Normally, in international competition, the temperature is set at between 18-24 degrees (celsius)," said international coach Kuldeep Malik. Another coach added, "At that temperature, an athlete is able to wrestle freely after warming up and the bout will be full of action. Here it was almost impossible."

While it is true that most domestic competitions in India are held in environments without air conditioning, they are usually held in the winters and not in the middle of the day in peak summer. With the outdoor temperature in the mid-forties and no cooling, save for a few portable fans to blow air onto the judges table, the spectators, coaches and officials faced brutal conditions.

ALSO READ: Vinesh, Sakshi book CWG berths after emerging victorious in trials

The athletes suffered more. For the players who had to wrestle five intense matches of six minutes after a hard weight cut, it was extremely hard to breathe.

"I had no stamina" said Maharashtra's Vijay, who might have considered the possibility of a massive upset after he opened up a 3-1 lead over Olympic silver medallist Ravi in the semifinals of the 57kg competition.

By the middle of the second round, though, the heat got to him and he barely attempted to fight out of a pin, with Ravi winning 9-5. "Because of the heat, I was cramping up in the bout. My abdomen cramped up very badly in the end," said Vijay.

A WFI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "What's the point of hosting events in a stadium without ventilation? And this is a reasonably high profile event. If this happened during an international tournament, we would be banned."

The conditions were alien for Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia, who has wrestled in all sorts of places. Punia, known for his non-stop aggression, was uncharacteristically defensive in his matches. "There's no point pushing for more in this situation. It's not just about conserving energy. Everyone was sweating so much that it was impossible to get a strong grip. When that happens there a very good chance that you will slip and end up giving your opponent the point," he said.

Indeed in his final match, Punia would only make one scoring attempt and win by a narrow 2-1 decision.

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The narrowness of the defeat would be too much for his opponent, Vishal Kaliraman. Unable to deal with the loss he punched through the drywall at the stadium and allegedly put a hole through the material in the practise hall as well.

Later in the day, Delhi Police personnel came and looked at the damage before being guided away by a WFI official who learned they had come as part of the investigation involving Malik's alleged assault on the judge. "That's (the dry wall hole) not the thing you want. That's a completely different matter we are dealing with," WFI official JP Yadav said resignedly.

Yeah, that sort of day.

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