Indian wrestlers seek court intervention to stop WFI trials ahead of Paris Olympics

Bajrang Punia-Vinesh Phogat-Sakshi Malik

New Delhi: With the Paris Olympics 2024 just around the corner, the Indian wrestling fraternity is embroiled in a bitter dispute between the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and some of its star athletes. Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, and Satyavrat Kadian have filed an urgent petition in the Delhi High Court, seeking to halt the selection trials scheduled by the WFI on March 10 and 11.

The four wrestlers, who have already qualified for the Olympics in their respective weight categories, have challenged the authority of the WFI to conduct the trials, as the federation is currently under provisional suspension by the United World Wrestling (UWW), the global governing body of the sport. The UWW had suspended the WFI in August 2023 for failing to hold its elections on time, as per its constitution.

The petitioners have also accused the WFI of violating the National Sports Development Code of India 2011, which lays down the guidelines for the functioning of national sports federations. The WFI had also faced the ire of the Sports Ministry, which had revoked its recognition in December 2023 for showing “blatant disregard for norms and sports code”.

The Delhi High Court has agreed to hear the matter on Friday, March 9, and has issued notices to the WFI, the Sports Ministry, the Indian Olympic Association, and the UWW. The court has also asked the respondents to file their replies by Thursday, March 8.

Bajrang Punia, who is ranked No. 1 in the world in the men’s freestyle 65 kg category, has been training in Russia for the last two months to prepare for the Olympics. He told PTI that he would boycott the trials if they were held by the WFI under the leadership of Sanjay Singh, who was elected as the president of the federation in a controversial election in January 2024.

He said, “If I did not have to participate in the trials, I would not have spent Rs 30 lakh on my practice, but how is the suspended WFI conducting the trials? How can the government approve this? I don’t understand how a sports body suspended by the Government of India can announce a trial. Why is the government silent? We will participate in it only if an ad-hoc committee or the government conducts the trial.”

He also claimed that he was not alone in his protest and that Sakshi Malik, who won a bronze medal in the women’s freestyle 62 kg category at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, and Vinesh Phogat, who is ranked No. 2 in the world in the women’s freestyle 53 kg category, were also on his side. He said, “This is our joint decision. We are together in this.” Sakshi and Vinesh could not be reached for comments.

The WFI, on the other hand, has maintained that it has the right to conduct the trials, as it has received the approval of the UWW and the IOC. WFI President Sanjay Singh has appealed to the wrestlers to forget their grievances and participate in the trials, saying that it was in the best interest of the country and the sport. He said, “We are doing this for the sake of the wrestlers and the nation. We want to send the best team to the Olympics and give them the best chance to win medals. We have no personal agenda or vendetta against anyone. We request the wrestlers to cooperate with us and show their patriotism and sportsmanship.”

The WFI has also argued that the trials are necessary to ensure fair and transparent selection of the Olympic team, as some of the wrestlers who had qualified earlier may have lost their form or fitness due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns. The WFI has also cited the example of other countries, such as the USA, Russia, and Japan, which have also conducted or planned to conduct trials for their Olympic-bound wrestlers.

The trials, if they go ahead, will be held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, and will feature 18 weight categories, six each for men’s freestyle, men’s Greco-Roman, and women’s freestyle. The winners of the trials will represent India at the Paris Olympics, which will take place from July 26 to August 11, 2024.

Bajrang Punia-Vinesh Phogat-Sakshi Malik

The qualification process for the Paris Olympics involves three events: the 2023 World Championships, the continental qualifiers in 2024, and the 2024 World Olympic Qualifiers, the last chance for wrestlers to earn a spot. India has so far secured 10 quotas for the Olympics, five in men’s freestyle, three in women’s freestyle, and two in men’s Greco-Roman. The remaining eight quotas will be decided at the continental and world qualifiers, which will be held in the first half of 2024.