The death of a 17-year-old female athlete in an apparent suicide pact with three other trainees in Kerala on Wednesday has brought the focus on an unpleasant aspect of Indian sports that few want to talk about: the harassment and exploitation of sportswomen.

On May 6, four teenaged athletes – all girls training in water sports – at the Sports Authority of India centre in Kerala attempted suicide by consuming a local poisonous fruit. While one of them died soon after hospitalisation, the other three are critical and have been put on pacemakers.

The incident has triggered a number of allegations and theories that are now under investigation: a suicide note signed by the four girls says they had been scolded by their seniors for a “silly fault”, while the local police claim that the fault is a reference to the athletes drinking beer once. However, relatives claim the athletes were tortured by SAI authorities and coaches. SAI authorities have denied all such allegations.

But the horrific suicide pact, some sportswomen feel, makes it important to talk about the kinds of harassment many young women in sports clubs and academies have to face, particularly during their years of training.

‘There is always a threat of being kicked out’

“There are two types of harassment sportswomen could face – sexual and mental,” said Sunita Godara, a retired marathon champion who now runs the HFT Taekwondo Academy in Delhi. “In either case, girls training in camps or academies rarely speak out because of the threat of being kicked out.”

Cases of sexual harassment in the sporting world surface fairly regularly. In January, a young table tennis coach from Chhattisgarh was fired after a CCTV video emerged showing him dragging a female player to his hotel room. The coach was travelling with 16 players for a women’s sub-junior championship and the incident allegedly took place at a hotel in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh.

In September, a trainee female gymnast lodged a police complaint against a coach and an international-level gymnast for directing vulgar gestures and comments towards her. Wrestling, too, has been in the headlines in the recent past. In February 2014, SAI wrestling coach Satbir Panghal was charged for sexually harassing minor girls after students at a training centre in Hissar, Haryana, alleged that he had touched them inappropriately and even kissed them without consent. In 2013, another SAI wrestling coach in Gujarat was accused of demanding sexual favours from two teenaged female wrestlers.

Perhaps the most high profile case in recent history occurred in 2010, when 31 members of the Indian women’s national hockey team collectively spoke out about sexual harassment they faced from their coach, Olympic gold medallist MK Kaushik. The coach was removed from his post and, after investigations, was found guilty of the misconduct alleged by the women players.

Fat checks, massages, unwanted ogling

As an athletics coach, Sunita Godara has seen a number of horrifying instances of harassment in different forms over the years. “There was an incident where male coaches asked trainee girls to strip so that they could do a ‘fat’ check,” said Godara. “I’ve heard directly from a student of an incident when coaches themselves gave massages to female students, till a senior player complained and the coach was transferred.”

Cricketer Thirush Kamini, who plays for the Indian national team, faced milder forms of harassment during her training years at cricket camps. “When we would go swimming or running, which is part of the training programme, male students would often stare at us and our clothes, and many seemed amused at the idea of women playing cricket,” said Kamini.

Long jump champion Anju Bobby George says she hasn’t experienced any harassment from coaches or fellow sportsmen, but points out the problems that poor logistics can create. “When I used to train in Bangalore, our training areas were not safe at all – a lot of unwanted men had easy access to the grounds and would roam around staring at us, making it uncomfortable,” said George.

Even if there is no sexual harassment involved, Godara says girls in sports are easy targets for exploitation of other kinds, especially if they are from low-income backgrounds.

“Girls at training camps are sometimes treated like guinea pigs or even bonded labourers,” said Godara. “I have seen young girls being made to wash their coach’s clothes and serve him food. Such behaviour is not acceptable – sports federations should run like institutions, not sweatshops.”