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Indian wrestlers eye Olympics after sex scandal

10-07-2024

Bureau Report + Agencies

NEW DELHI: Over a year after protests against sexual harassment allegations shook Indian wrestling, female athletes are gearing up for major events, including the 2024 Paris Olympics. The BBC spoke to young wrestlers about their journey.

Reetika Hooda almost didn’t make it.

The 23-year-old is among the five Indian women wrestlers to qualify for the Olympics this year.

It’s a hard-won opportunity, following a year of setbacks that shook her confidence. She knew she needed more training and competitions to improve her game.

A year ago, all wrestling came to a halt in India after its federation chief Brij Bhushan Singh was accused of sexual misconduct. He denies the allegations.

India’s sports ministry did not sack Singh but it disbanded the federation after finding several lapses, including the non-compliance of sexual harassment laws, and set up a temporary team to run things.

It was an unprecedented time. Hooda remembers watching the country’s most accomplished wrestlers, including her inspiration Sakshi Malik – the only Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling camp on the roads of Delhi, demanding Singh’s resignation.

The protest made headlines globally, especially after the police detained the wrestlers when they tried to march to India’s new parliament building. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) condemned the way the wrestlers were treated and called for an impartial inquiry into their complaints.

“It was sad not only because of what was happening but also what wasn’t,” Hooda told me.

Each year, the International Olympic Committee designates certain tournaments as qualification events for the games. To compete, wrestlers must earn ranking points in trials, win national competitions, and secure the Wrestling Federation of India’s (WFI) approval but instead of competing, Hooda stared at an empty sporting calendar for weeks.

“We trained but there were no trials, which meant we could not compete and know our shortcomings. There was a constant fear that we won’t be prepared [for the Olympics],” she said.

For a country that’s won only 24 medals at individual events in Olympics, with over a quarter in wrestling, this was worrying.

Fresh elections to the WFI were finally held in December 2023, nearly a year after the protests began.

The wrestlers had asked India’s sports minister to prevent people associated with Singh from participating in the election.

Singh did not contest as he had already served the maximum of three terms. But his close aide Sanjay Singh was elected the chief after a landslide victory.

This sparked outrage among women wrestlers. On the same day, Olympic medalist Malik quit the sport in protest.

“Even now I get emotional when I think of that moment,” Malik said. “Wrestling took me to such heights, got me love and respect, and I had to give it up.”

Young wrestlers were stunned by Malik’s decision but soon, they were back on the mat.

“Sakshi Malik was the reason I took up wrestling,” said Tanu Malik, a 20-year-old wrestler in Haryana state.

“So when I saw her crying, I thought to myself, she fought for us, we can’t give up now.”

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