It has been an unprecedented face-off in Indian sports – never ever had Olympic medallists made sexual harassment allegations against a federation chief, who is also a ruling party MP. Late on Friday, Round One of this battle seemed to have gone the players’ way.
India’s top grapplers called off their stir against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) on Friday following an hours-long meeting with sports minister Anurag Thakur, which ended with the government asking Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the federation’s beleaguered chief, to step aside pending inquiry. On Saturday, the Director General of Sports Authority of India (SAI) also suspended WFI’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar because of “reports about the functioning of WFI”.
At the helm of this players’ movement has been Vinesh Phogat, a double World Championship medallist. She has been the face of the protest.
Besides being at the forefront of meetings and negotiations with the sports minister and SAI officials, Vinesh was the first to allege that Singh and some coaches had sexually harassed junior wrestlers.
Those on the circuit aren’t surprised that it is Vinesh who has taken on the powerful wrestling officialdom. Headstrong and impulsive, the 28-year-old has for long been Indian wrestling’s outspoken rebel, whose career has seen as many lows as highs. She has endured dark moments off the mat as well as shone in the spotlight on it.
To the world, the name ‘Phogat’ would instantly mean Geeta and Babita, the sisters whose lives inspired the Aamir Khan-starrer Bollywood hit Dangal. Their cousin Vinesh, who wasn’t in the Dangal script, has spent a significant part of her career trying to step out of their shadows.
Vinesh was 8 when she lost her father Rajpal. In 2004, her mother Premlata was diagnosed with cancer. She would travel 75km to Rohtak for chemotherapy and Vinesh, along with her sister Priyanka, had to grow up earlier than their peers, and juggle training, academics and chores.
“I was young, but I knew that my mother was troubled,” Vinesh had told The Indian Express in an earlier interview. “She would try to hide her pain and cry when she thought nobody was around. I did the same. Her sacrifices were for us and I realised then that all I could do to repay that was to stay on my path and do my best.”
While that developed a sense of responsibility in Vinesh, it was her uncle – Geeta-Babita’s father Mahavir – who adopted her and later introduced her to wrestling. Vinesh would grow into a world-class wrestler and achieve much more than her two celebrity cousins.
Inspired by her mother, who raised her two children alone in a patriarchal setting, Vinesh developed into a resolute grappler. She combined stamina and speed to emerge as one of the few challengers in the world to halt the Japanese juggernaut. She has many firsts to her name: the first Indian woman to be ranked world number one, the first Indian woman to win two world championship medals, and the first Indian woman to win an Asian Games gold medal.
‘Caring and emotional’
Off the mat, those who know her well describe Vinesh, an avid reader who once maintained a diary in which she noted down her every emotion, as a ‘caring and emotional person’. At the same time, they say she is someone who’ll ‘not hesitate to call a spade a spade’.
Poornima Raman, a physiotherapist who has worked closely with Vinesh, says people have ‘a lot of misconceptions about her’. “She can come across as pretty intimidating. But quite contrarily, she is one of the kindest and caring people I have worked with,” said Raman. “She can be stubborn, has very strong opinions and always speaks her mind. But that’s probably because she doesn’t have this concept of lying.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. While for most athletes, the Olympics are the ultimate highlights of their careers, for Vinesh, they’ve led to nothing but heartbreaks and miseries.
In Rio, it was the physical pain caused by twisting her knee during a bout. In Tokyo, it was the ‘mental torture’ that undid her. Her campaign at the 2020 Olympics ended in the first round and she was subsequently sanctioned by Singh for perceived ‘indiscipline’. In an emotional piece for The Indian Express, Vinesh narrated how she was left broken after unfair criticism of her performance. Raman said it was one of the toughest phases of Vinesh’s career.
“I slept once since I reached home. I slept for two hours on the flight and sometimes in the Village. There, I would walk alone and drink coffee. I was alone. When the sun would rise, I felt sleepy,” she had written. “I don’t know when I will return (to the mat). Maybe I won’t. I feel I was better off with that broken leg. I had something to correct. Now my body is not broken, but I’m truly broken.”
Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Vinesh for a personal meeting and last September, after she won a bronze medal at the World Championships, she met Home Minister Amit Shah.
But the scars of the Tokyo Olympics have still not been erased. In a letter to PT Usha, the track and field legend who became the first woman president of the Indian Olympic Association last month, the wrestlers said Vinesh was ‘mentally harassed and tortured by the WFI President after she missed out on an Olympic medal in Tokyo.’
“She almost contemplated suicide,” the letter stated. “It has taken a lot of courage for us wrestlers to come together and protest against the WFI president.”
Courage is something that Vinesh as well as the other wrestlers will need in abundance in their fight against the powerful officials.
Ministry suspends WFI assistant secy
A day after it asked Singh to step aside, the sports ministry on Saturday suspended the federation’s assistant secretary Vinod Tomar, a close aide of the beleaguered chief who has been accused of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement by the country’s top wrestlers. The ministry also cancelled the ongoing Ranking Tournament in Singh’s stronghold Gonda. “The Ministry has directed WFI to return the entry fees charged to participants for the ongoing event,” the ministry said in a statement.