Alongside the eponymous death and taxes, there’s another certainty of life, at least in Indian sports -- you can’t conduct a wrestling competition in India without a measure of controversy. Contentious refereeing, headstrong strong men wrestlers and coaches, and a unilateral decision making federation boss always made for a combustible combination.
Something similar was still expected after the functioning of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) was suspended last month following unprecedented allegations of wrongdoing (financial and otherwise) made by top wrestlers against officials and three-term president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, and replaced instead with an oversight committee appointed by the Ministry of Sports.
The selection trials for the Asian Championships were the first major competition conducted by the six-member committee headed by Olympic bronze medalist boxer MC Mary Kom. Trouble began two days before the start of the trials, when on the 6 th of March, five wrestlers approached the courts seeking their inclusion in the tryouts. While the protesting wrestlers were duly inducted, there was still plenty of tension in the air heading into it.
Police were deployed and spectators were kept to a minimum – athletes were only permitted to bring in two support staff. Even the media was discouraged on the first day to keep the number of non-athletes and potential troublemakers down to a minimum. There was plenty of potential for that. Even the very specific Venn diagram of selection trials held at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium would throw up a police complaint (after supporters of one wrestler thrashed his opponent after an ill tempered contest in 2018).
Nevertheless for all their efforts the inevitable happened. After a contentious final second four-point throw awarded to Sagar won him a match against Sachin Sehrawat in the men’s 67kg greco roman category, angry coaches of the latter stormed the mat. Accusations were made suggesting certain judges might have had a bias. Matters were not helped even after a review due to inconclusive footage. In the past, WFI president Brij Bhushan, who had a reputation for wielding the microphone and raining down instructions would have tried to make a unilateral decision and likely inflamed matters worse.
Something similar happened at the Commonwealth Games selection trials last year, also at the IG stadium when a problematic decision in the men’s heavyweight category ended up with a referee slapped and a wrestler suspended.
This time though, the oversight committee represented on the day by Captain (Retd) Rajagopalan, former SAI executive director and former Olympic bronze medallist wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, cooled matters down by simply going by the book and referring the matter to a United World Wrestling (UWW) panel for precisely such situations.
The result came in half an hour later in favour of Sagar and with the final decision being made by an international (neutral) body, the protest too died away.
Later on, Captain Rajagopalan would suggest exactly how the situation had been handled. “We studied the UWW rules of how the tournaments are organised. Once we knew there was a precedent to handle such a situation, we went by that,” he suggested.
Indeed but for the legal challenge prior to the tournament with players, the selection trials largely passed off without incident. Unlike in the past, bouts were not stopped midway for officials to pose for pictures with players, there were no long stoppages of play due to coaches or wrestlers’ protests and there were no threats of violence from officials or competitors. A few of the senior athletes – Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik -- who had led the protests at Jantar Mantar which led to the initial suspension in the functioning of the Federation didn’t compete at the selection trials but the others barring injury did compete in New Delhi.
What the trials suggested is that it is indeed possible to conduct a largely controversy free wrestling event. It remains to be seen though what the future would bring. The oversight committee is expected to present their fact finding report on the issues raised by the protesting wrestlers some time next week. However it is uncertain when the sports ministry would act on the findings and what the role of the oversight committee would be in the functioning of the federation until then.
Despite a successful trial, not all members of the committee are looking forward to the continued responsibility. The Oversight Committee was expected to deliver its fact-finding report on the 23rd of February and that date was subsequently pushed back by another couple of weeks which have now passed. “We will have to continue being responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the Wrestling Federation of India until we are told to stop by the Ministry of Sport. It’s not something that is ideal because all of us have our regular jobs. Work is piling up there as well. But this is a responsibility we have been given,” said a member of the committee.