Wrestling is arguably India’s most successful Olympic sport in recent years and represents some of India’s most prominent athletes. Look behind the medals and global recognition, however, and there’s a turf battle that makes its way into the public eye every now and then.
The latest flashpoint was Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang Punia’s assertion (Thursday) that he was being denied a physiotherapist, but the underlying issue is the growing scrutiny the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is seeking to exercise on the career of Indian wrestlers.
What happened with Bajrang?
On Friday, a day after Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang Punia complained about the lack of a full-time physiotherapist hampering his recovery from a knee injury, WFI released a statement suggesting Punia had received two physiotherapists; with whom he chose not to work.
Competing for the first time since winning an Olympic bronze medal, Punia struggled during Asian Championship trials, only narrowly qualifying for the team. He then told reporters that he was still recovering from a knee injury sustained before the Olympics and added that he had asked TOPS authorities for a full-time physiotherapist to help him recover. “But no one was made available to me. I had also asked [his sponsors] JSW but they also seemed helpless.” He said JSW told him they could not attach personnel without permission from the federation.
What is WFI’s response?
They said a personal physiotherapist had been disciplined but the individual – Dr Anand Kumar – had not been relieved by his employers, Indian Railways. The WFI said it also provided two other physiotherapists to the Sports Authority of India national camp, but Punia chose not to use their services.
In general, the WFI said athletes would no longer be allowed to work exclusively with a personal physio. All physios must be part of the national camp, where they must work with several athletes. However, these rules are not applied uniformly. At least one international medalist has been allowed to keep – unofficially – the physiotherapist he has worked with in recent years.
Is this the first incident concerning physiotherapists?
Reports emerged ahead of the Tokyo Olympics that female wrestler, Vinesh Phogat, had sought a personal physiotherapist at the Games. The physio was an employee of the Olympic Gold Quest organization, which had supported Vinesh. WFI Chairman Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh then said The Indian Express that private organizations “spoiled the athletes”. While physios are an essential member of the support staff for athletes participating in contact sports, the Federation’s position is that the use of personal physios has led to ‘indiscipline’ among athletes. However, after initially threatening to suspend Phogat from the sport, the WFI relented.
Is it just physios or is there a bigger issue here?
In recent months, the federation has tightened control over wrestlers. The WFI said all contracts signed by wrestlers with potential supporting organizations must now be approved by them. At least one organization has noted that athletes they have supported before have been told not to renew their contracts at the end of the month. There are also limitations in the type of support that can also be offered to wrestlers.
Likewise, trainers – until the most recent Olympic cycle, elite wrestlers could theoretically train under personal trainers. However, after the Tokyo Olympics, WFI President Singh strongly opposed personal trainers for athletes. He said private coaching has an impact on general discipline and specifically increases the risk of doping. “Doping officials can come to the camps anytime, but who is going to check in the personal centers,” he told PTI.
According to the PTI, at least four Indian wrestlers, including two at the cadet level, have been arrested for doping since 2016. Each violation at an international tournament costs the WFI 20,000 Swiss francs (INR 16 lakh) in fines to the sport’s global governing body, United World Wrestling (UWW).
Following this, the contracts of all foreign coaches working with Indian wrestlers on an individual basis had been terminated. Athletes are now also expected to be regular members of the national camp, failing which they cannot be selected to the Indian team. Ahead of Asian Championships tryouts, 10 wrestlers, including former world medalist Geeta Phogat and much-loved world junior bronze medalist Anju, were barred from competing after opting out of national camp . While athletes have skipped national camp for multiple reasons in the past, this was the first time they were barred from participating in a selection trial.
Why do athletes want to work with (non-federal) organizations?
While Indian wrestling has a huge pool of wrestling talent, the level of sports science and technical expertise is low. For example, the WFI still does not have a video analyst or a high performance director. Considering that the margins at the elite level in wrestling are very thin, the role of support organizations is to provide solutions for wrestlers to bridge these marginal gaps. A major role they play is to provide high quality physiotherapists. Indeed, compared to other sports, wrestling is a high contact sport with a greater frequency of injuries. A personal physio allows an athlete to treat small injuries immediately rather than letting them get worse – which happens when two physios work with 30 athletes (which happens at a national camp).
The track record of federations in terms of managing athlete logistics is also poor. Prior to Asian qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics, Indian wrestlers only managed to reach the competition city on the day of their matches as air tickets were inexplicably booked for that date. Additionally, while elite wrestlers in the public eye have some sort of basic food and medical support in place, this is lacking in the junior age groups where it is sorely needed. It is in this capacity gap that many private organizations intervene. Long before winning Olympic silver, Ravi Dahiya (for example) was supported by OGQ through a period of injuries that saw him miss the 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games.
What is at stake for the WFI, and for the athletes?
The federation usually has enormous power over where a wrestler can compete. Athletes in professional sports like badminton/athletics have no problem traveling with physios or private coaches (Lakshya Sen or PV Sindhu in badminton, for example) because there are so many tournaments on the world circuit – for which the players do not need the authorization of the federation to compete. The only time the federation comes into play is for events like the Olympics, Asian Games and World Championships.
However, wrestlers compete almost exclusively as part of the national team. Thus, they are much more dependent on the federation. If the federation suspends a player, there is no way for him to compete internationally. In recent times however, elite athletes like Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have been able to replace this system due to their profile. After the Olympics however, the Federation tightens the reins.