The protest against the Wrestling Federation of India president by star athletes at Jantar Mantar this week is a long-due consequence of the most insidious disease in Indian sport. A group of wrestlers, including Commonwealth Games gold medalist Vinesh Phogat, have accused the federation president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh – who is also a Bharatiya Janata Party MP – of sexual misconduct and financial misappropriation. They were demanding that he be removed from the post.
As pressure mounted, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur announced on Friday that Singh would step aside until an inquiry into the allegations is completed.
Whispers about the sexual exploitation of Indian athletes by people in power are unfortunately all too frequent. For sportspeople, arms snaking around their shoulders and dreaded phone calls by a coach or selector demanding a “meeting” are well-known experiences. Everybody knows yet nobody speaks out.
Is this India’s Larry Nassar moment, as the country faces a moment of reckoning just like the US did when the doctor for the country’s national women’s gymnastics team was convicted for sexually abusing hundreds of young women? The outcome of the inquiry in light of the protest by India’s wrestlers may well impact many other sports bodies.
There are reasons to be optimistic. The protest featuring prominent women athletes, had the vocal support of male athletes and has gained the attention of the head of the Indian Olympic Association, PT Usha. However, the nexus of politicians and vested interests who wish to maintain the status quo in sports administration in India is the biggest stumbling block to achieving substantive change.
Indian sports provide predators looking to exploit vulnerable groups of people with a peculiar combination of enabling factors that few other sectors can match.
The supply line of Indian athletes offers a unique set of opportunities for exploitation. Many Indian athletes are drawn from marginalised communities and lack the awareness that could protect them from exploitation by those in power. The Sports Authority of India model of hostels for promising athletes, while not without its merits, also provides a fertile ground for exploitation. Wards cut off from their families, often at impressionable ages, face constant pressure to choose the seemingly easy way to progress.
There are only two ways to progress in sports, regardless of talent – performance and patronage. Since performance can be limited by the opportunity to perform, especially in team sports, patronage is the de facto route to sporting opportunity and success in India.
A feature that is specific to India, which adds greatly to the nature of exploitation in Indian sports, is the lack of alternatives for athletes. Athletes, if they drop out of the education system, seldom have the opportunity to return and find gainful employment via other routes. By the time they start looking for alternatives, many are aged out of the system of recruitment in government jobs and other fields. This adds a desperate edge to their struggle to achieve sporting success, which is frequently exploited by sports administrators.
Due to the historical ties of powerful politicians to sporting bodies, and the revenue sports provide to media institutions, there is almost an incentivised culture of hushing up whistleblowing. Indian athletes will always be vulnerable because the very nature and structure of sports rely on conforming to established norms and existing within the ecosystem.
A sportsperson cannot represent India without an affiliation to a national sports federation. This institutional monopoly underpins the unequal power dynamic between the sporting body vis a vis the athlete. This is at the root of why so few current athletes can call out the exploitation they face. They have too much to lose.
Finally, Indian sports is a systemic black hole that has often escaped the reformative scrutiny afforded other fields of endeavour. The draft national code for good governance in sports (2017) does not have the teeth to enforce the safeguards and policies necessary to protect and empower our athletes. Because these legal provisions are drafted by the same vested interests that wish to protect the status quo, the crucial intent for change is missing.
Many false da wns have come and gone. Sporadic attempts at wresting accountability via efforts like the Lodha Committee reforms or the National Sports Bill (2011) have swiftly been shut down or worked around via a system of proxies and backdoor appointments that maintain the status quo.
But if India is to truly become a global sports power, reform is essential.
Anupriya, a former cricketer who represented Jharkhand and Delhi University, is a policy analyst working at the intersection of sports and social policy.