Wrestlers’ Protest – Done, Dusted, Dustbinned?

The wrestlers’ protest has gone off the news cycle, world sport has taken note of what has happened because global trends towards safeguarding are the exact opposite.

By Sharda Ugra, 4 Jul 2023

Have you noticed how the protesting wrestlers have disappeared off the news cycle? A Delhi court said it would decide whether to ‘take cognisance’ of the Delhi police chargesheet against wrestling don Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh only on July 7. The heat is off the accused MP, directed once again at the wrestlers who are accusing him of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying. They’ve been called political stooges and it’s being said they seek special favours around selection trials etc. The wrestlers have said their fight will continue in the court, not the streets. All done, dusted and dustbinned?

While the TV cameras and nightly shows have moved onto other topics, let us not imagine this mediaeval horror show around the protesting wrestlers has gone unnoticed in the sporting world. The Indian sporting establishment’s response to the wrestlers’ protest became a global worst-practice case study around the harassment and abuse of its athletes.

This is the country that dreams of hosting an Olympic Games in the next decade and in October, will stage the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s 140th session in Mumbai. This is also the country whose Olympic establishment didn’t exactly protest about its athletes being victimised, vilified and roughed up by law enforcement.

Safeguarding athletes is a hot-button topic in international sport that has gained prominence and focus over the last five years, with pressures on International Federations (IF) to up their game around protecting their athletes from predators. Every two years, the IOC holds an Athletes Forum, where the athlete representatives from IFs and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) discuss issues that concern them.

The next Athletes Forum is to be held from September 20 to October 2 this year, a week before the Mumbai Session. Should the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) send its Athletes Commissions representatives to the Forum, they will be asked how they supported the protesting Indian wrestlers. (Er, we weren’t allowed to.)

In 2015, an Athletes Forum asked the IOC to build resources to prevent harassment and abuse in sport. In 2017, the IOC released a toolkit for official bodies about how to safeguard athletes. Bodies like the IOA whose safe sport policy, while impressive on its website, was just an empty promise when the wrestlers protested.

From 2021, the IOC has also offered a safeguarding in sport course and in its first two years, 165 students from 66 countries have earned an International Safeguarding Officer in Sport certificate. Of its 165 students, 42 were from NOCs and 15 from IFs. The seven-month course run by Sportsoracle has 250 learning hours and includes three examinations marked by ‘emeritus-level’ professors before the certificate is awarded. One of the 165 certified officers is an Indian, Karan Singh of the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, as part of its Olympic Values Education Programme carried out in Odisha. The IOA has not released the name of a Safeguarding Officer, with or without certificate.

While Indian sport’s mai-baap mentality continues thriving, the international focus on safe sport is increasing and evolving. While the safeguarding course is well-received, this March, the IOC committed a $10m fund to improve rights and responses around athletes’ physical and emotional security and moved to fine tune its safeguarding policy. Since the release of the Toolkit, it is now clear that “Safeguarding” athletes occupies a unique space among the IOC’s sport integrity concerns where usually problems are tackled and transmitted from the global to national levels.

Other integrity issues, like doping, competition-manipulation, governance-corruption, have international regulations that can be globally assessed and rule-breakers punished. Unlike these, preventing harassment and abuse in sport it is now believed, can best be handled with local prevention-and-consequence measures. An 18-member IOC working group was formed in March to formulate the best method to “establish independent safeguarding systems” across Olympic nations.

Indian Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra is a member of the group which includes reps from NOCs, IFs and ACs. Their first physical meeting was held in June with the wrestlers’ protest fresh and relevant. It became a real-life scenario to show the working group of the obstacles and challenges that independent safeguarding systems must overcome if athletes are to be truly protected at the local level.

This two-word cluster – ‘independent’ and ‘system’ – spells blasphemy for Indian sports officials, be it the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the Sports Authority of India, the IOA or our sporting federations. (Lately, a sporting federation, i.e. basketball, has been accused of using bouncers to prevent court-appointed officials from taking charge of their functioning.)

The end goal of the working group is to develop resources and institutions outside of a country’s formal sporting structures, to strengthen the prevention of and response to abuse and harassment of athletes at the national level. In the case of the Indian wrestlers, neither was there prevention despite previous complaints nor empathetic response by formal authorities after their sit-down in the streets.

Bindra says, “We have to develop resources which have the capability of getting implemented and having an impact.” The starting point involves a ‘victim-centric’ approach to addressing a problem and developing proactive and reactive systems that will strengthen safeguarding. The exact opposite of what happened with our wrestlers, who faced accused-centric responses.

The IOC model will have to be workable and fit into across culture-specific local environments. Yet, a universal feature around safeguarding regardless of countries/ sporting disciplines, Bindra says, is the ‘stigma and fear’ attached to talking about abuse and harassment in sport, “because it potentially can end careers and can be career-ending.”

Indian sport and its governors will baulk at the idea that our sport requires an independent regulator. Like say, SEBI is expected to be in the stock market. An independent safeguarding body outside of MYAS/ IOA/ SAI/ federation control – where athletes can voice their complaints and expect fair redressal and the perpetrators face serious consequences – will only look like a nightmare and threat to these folk.

But what if the IOC mandates that each NOC must have an independent safeguarding body for sporting disciplines? Or, else. Bindra says the idea of mandates will be deliberated but his views on the subject are clear. Before mandating any regulation, “It is important to make sure we create the resources and make sure that we have the right people to deal with the subject across the whole Olympic movement. That is the first step before we can reach out to mandating it.”

About the wrestlers protest Bindra said, “There is no secret (that) a lot of work needs to happen across the board whether it be wrestling or other sporting organisations, that we (in Indian sport) need to create the right systems and processes to deal with the issue… with a great degree of sensitivity and empathy.”

He points out that while abuse and harassment is a “Societal issue which also exists in sport, I believe there is potential for sport to lead the way and for people to be safeguarded in, through and around sport.”

While contemplating independent regulation, let’s not forget that India’s sporting bosses have a special talent for compromising/ corrupting everything, like they did with the IOA’s first Athletes Commission “elections.” The IOA continues to avoid hiring a CEO much to the annoyance of the IOC. The IOA delay has now hit the six-month mark.

As is obvious to Indian eyes, our sport’s response to safe sport is ‘accused-centric’ and agenda-driven. In total dissonance with its grandiose ambitions of becoming a sporting superpower and/ or staging an Olympics.