The country’s fast-rising wrestlers vehemently opposed the IOA ad-hoc panel’s controversial decision to exempt star players Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia from the Asian Games trials as they challenged it in the Delhi High Court and also hit the streets in Haryana’s Hisar to register their protest.
The reigning U20 World Champion Antim Panghal and U23 Asian Champion Sujeet Kalkal slammed the ad-hoc committee’s decision as unjust and unfair and asserted that they are capable of beating Bajrang and Vinesh if they are pitted against them in the trials.
The panel, led by Bhupender Singh Bajwa, had on Tuesday announced the criteria, saying trials will be held in all categories but they have already selected wrestlers in men’s freestyle 65kg and women’s 53kg weight class.
Sujeet competes in Bajrang’s category while Antim competes in 53kg where she has wrestled with celebrated Vinesh in the past, losing close bouts.
The 19-year-old Panghal, who hails from Hisar, asked why Vinesh has been selected when she has not been practising for long.
Panghal, who is a silver medallist from the senior Asian Championship, asked about the criteria for exemption through a video.
“Vinesh Phogat has received a direct entry for the Asian Games when she has not trained in the last year. She doesn’t have any achievement in the last year,” Panghal said in the video.
“Last year, in the Junior World Championships, I won a gold medal and became the first woman wrestler from India to achieve this feat. In the 2023 Asian Championships, I won a silver medal, but Vinesh has no achievement to show in the last year. She was also injured,” she said.
“Sakshi Malik has also won an Olympic medal, she too is not being sent. What is so special about Vinesh that she is being sent? Just organise trials. I am not saying that I am the only one who can beat Vinesh. There are several other girls who can beat her,” said Panghal.
Kalkal said he had recently defeated American John Michael Diakomihalis by a comprehensive 8-2 margin while Bajrang had lost to the same wrestler by technical superiority in the World Championships last year.
“For the World Championships too (in 2022), Bajrang was given entry to compete without trials. The American wrestler (Diakomihalis) against whom Bajrang lost 0-10, I have beaten him in the World Ranking series 8-2.” Sujeet won that Ranking Series event held in Tunis in July 2022.
“I don’t say that only I can beat Bajrang. There are no less than 5-6 wrestlers in our weight category who can beat Bajrang. That’s why all wrestlers should get equal opportunity and a fair trial should be held.
“It is also my dream to become an Olympic champion but if these wrestlers (like Bajrang and Vinesh) keep getting direct entries, then how will we fulfil our dreams,” he added.
Panghal was one of the junior wrestlers who had stood with Bajrang and Vinesh in their fight against the outgoing WFI chief in January this year when the elite players staged a sit-in.
However, now Panghal alleges that she has been cheated by the same wrestlers by denying her an opportunity to qualify for Asian Games.
Panghal, family members of Vishal Kaliraman, who competes in Bajrang’s category, assembled at Chhotu Ram Chowk in Hisar, demanding that trials be conducted in all weight categories.
Wrestlers from Baba Laldas Akhada in Hisar and the famous Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi also joined the protest along with senior citizens from nearby villages.
“We are here to protest against this decision of the IOA ad-hoc panel. We are here today and will decide later in the evening if we have to come back tomorrow,” Ram Niwas, Panghal’s father, told PTI.
The joint petition of the two wrestlers was mentioned before Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma, who listed the matter for Thursday.
The petition, moved by advocate Hrishikesh Baruah and Akshay Kumar, demanded that the directive issued by the IOA ad-hoc committee with regards to the two categories (men’s freestyle 65kg and women’s 53kg) be quashed and the exemption granted to Bajrang and Vinesh be set aside.
The petition demanded that the trials should be held in a fair manner, without granting any exemption to any wrestler and that the whole process be videographed.
“These wrestlers had said during their protest at Jantar Mantar that their fight is for justice and for the cause of junior wrestlers and now they want to sideline the junior wrestlers, so we had to move court against this decision,” Dayanand Kalkal, father of Sujeet, told PTI.
“Since the beginning of their protest, the intention was to get exemptions from trials, that’s why we never sided with them. People were blind and could not see what their intention was.
“If these celebrity wrestlers beat the upcoming wrestlers and go, no one will complain. It indeed is a matter of pride that our kids get to compete against such accomplished athletes. There must be a fair trial,” he added.
Under-fire Singh said the exemption decision is “unfortunate” and will hurt wrestling in India. He said WFI had ended the practice of giving exemptions to wrestlers because they realised that it was hurting the juniors.
“I am pretty anguished since the ad-hoc panel took this decision. It will hurt the sport of wrestling in this country. A lot of people have worked hard to lift this sport. The athletes, their parents, the fans of the sport, all have worked hard,” Singh said.
“Today, wrestling is one sport where an Olympic medal is considered guaranteed. And the decision that these wrestlers will go to a competition like Asian Games without trials, is an unfortunate one.” When countered that even under his tenure as President, the WFI had exempted Vinesh, Bajrang and others from trials for the 2018 Asian Games and that even during the 2022 CWG trials, the same wrestlers were given direct semifinal entries, he admitted it was a mistake.
“We did not send these wrestlers (to Commonwealth Games) directly, though we gave them direct semifinal berths. We realised later that perhaps it is not right and that’s exactly why we discussed this issue at our Executive Committee, took the advice of the coaches, studied the rules from other nations and passed the new rules in General Body Meeting that such exemptions will be not be given to any wrestler in any situation.” “I myself did not make this rule, unilaterally. It was widely discussed and then a decision was taken.” London Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt also came down heavily on Bajwa’s panel.
“There is nothing to celebrate and be happy about in wrestling in the last 6-7 months. We don’t want wrestlers to hit roads again as wrestling has already been shamed a lot,” Dutt said on social media. “I would request others such as Ravi Dahiya, and Deepak Punia to come forward and lodge protest against this unfair decision.” It has been learnt that Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya has already expressed his displeasure to IOA for his exclusion from the exemption list despite meeting the criteria.
(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed – PTI)