Packed halls, grapplers drenched in sweat, pumped-up coaches and the familiar scent of pain-relieving gels. On the face of it, the selection trials at Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat Centre for the upcoming under-15 and under-20 Asian Wrestling Championships were like any other in the recent past. But there was one stark difference: the absence of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Singh.
While some voices were still supporting him, wrestlers and coaches spoke in hushed tones about feeling “a lot freer”, participating without Brij Bhushan watching over them. “We are more pumped up and can participate without any pressure. Earlier the president would constantly hurl instructions over the mic and disrupt our rhythm. We just feel calmer with him not being around,” said a wrestler, requesting anonymity.
For over a decade, Brij Bhushan has been a constant presence at these events – sitting on a sofa, a mic in his hand, giving instructions and micro-managing the event. However, after he was accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers, an ad-hoc committee formed by the Indian Olympic Association has taken over the selection process.
And since the committee has opened its doors for any athlete who has played state-level for the trials, there has been a massive spike in the participation numbers. For these trials alone, the committee received 2400 entries. On Day 1, there were 550 registrations, according to the organisers.
With such huge numbers participating in the trials, both the wrestling halls at the SAI centre were packed to the brim. The warmup mat at the Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar hall resembled a ration queue as athletes waited for their turn.
Most wrestlers seemed a bit reluctant to speak on the ongoing protest and the allegations of sexual harassment levelled at Brij Bhushan but there was a sense of relief that the trials were being conducted under the ad-hoc committee.
“We wanted to give all the promising wrestlers a chance to participate. Since we have made it open, we are seeing new talent emerge. No one can complain now that there was favouritism in selections because we don’t know the athletes. Earlier we had a little fear if we could pull off the trials but we did it 10 days ago for another event. This time we are confident,” ad-hoc committee member Bhupender Singh Bajwa told The Indian Express.
A 17-year-old wrestler, who trains at an academy in Gurgaon, was among the few who wanted to share her views on the ongoing protests. “My mother spoke to me about it and we support the wrestlers. We are with them and whatever happened was extremely wrong,” the wrestler said.