On August 24, United World Wrestling made good on its warning. The global body provisionally suspended the Wrestling Federation of India for failing to conduct elections on time.
The suspension came just two weeks before Indian wrestlers were set to compete at the Wrestling World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia – an important Olympic qualification event.
Now, if any Indian wrestler wins a medal, neither the Indian flag nor the Indian national anthem – in case of a gold medal – will accompany the celebration. The uniforms will not carry the country’s name or logo either. The wrestler will stand as a neutral athlete.
The decision of the global federation was on the cards, though. The body had issued a public warning. But there was not a strong and cohesive enough effort to avoid the suspension.
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In January, a group of prominent wrestlers, including Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, launched a protest against then national wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, whom they accused of sexual harassment.
It took over three months for the Sports Ministry to take cognizance of the wrestlers’ claims. It directed the Indian Olympic Association to appoint an ad-hoc committee to run the federation’s day-to-day proceedings – which included organising elections.
United World Wrestling issued a statement expressing concern about the situation and warning the Indian federation of possible suspension. As an initial reprimand, the world body had already relocated the Asian Championships, scheduled to be held in Delhi in April, to Astana, Kazakhstan.
The ad-hoc panel initially adhered to its mandate of holding elections within 45 days of its conception. July 6 was the first date announced for elections, but the date kept getting postponed due to multiple interventions from state federations and orders from different high courts.
Tasked to bring order to the sports body, the committee instead reportedly descended into disharmony. There was no consensus on how to organise trials for the Asian Games and World Championships.
Eventually, the world body’s patience ran out.
Just last year, world football’s governing body Fifa had banned the All India Football Federation for failing to hold elections on time. Primarily though, Fifa had a problem with third party influence, as the Supreme Court had ordered a Committee of Administrators to look after the national football federation’s affairs.
The wrestling world body did not object to the ad-hoc panel; someone had to clean up the mess after all. All it wanted was elections for the executive committee to be conducted on time. Even that could not be achieved.
Irrespective of whether it is incompetence or complacency, for the Wrestling Federation of India to be suspended – and the country’s wrestlers to suffer even further as a result – the writing was always on the wall.