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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Vinesh Phogat’s predicament points to a sports culture that shows little equanimity, in victory or in defeat

An elegant wrestler who has won on the world stage, the authorities didn't allow Vinesh Phogat to fight freely, with all the support she needed and deserved.

By: Editorial |
Updated: August 14, 2021 8:52:11 am
The insensitivity of imposing a ban on an athlete even before she sets foot at home, is compounded by the slander for “indiscipline”.

Vinesh Phogat returned from her second Olympics without a medal, like thousands of athletes across the world. But her reception by the Wrestling Federation of India included the slapping of a temporary ban, and the prospect of a longer punishment. The show-cause notice issued to the disappointed athlete will require her to explain why she wasn’t friendly enough with her team-mates, amongst other unrelated-to-sport allegations. The federation has not only mistaken the individual sport for a game of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, it has sought to deflect attention from the first red flag that Vinesh raised upon landing in Tokyo: Questions on the absence of her regular physio, who could’ve contributed to nailing down the medal. The insensitivity of imposing a ban on an athlete even before she sets foot at home, is compounded by the slander for “indiscipline”.

Celebrating its highest medal haul from an Olympics, India has swung from dissing athletes who couldn’t medal in the first week to over-the-top celebrations by governments looking to piggyback on the winners. There is no semblance of balance when crores are showered on medal winners, while those who missed out are abused on social media and pushed off stage for not meeting expectations. Only three — or four, in case of contact sports — medals are given per event. But India, new to winning any medals at all, has refused to display the equanimity needed to empathise with those who return without medals.

Writing for this paper, Vinesh spoke of the flip side of fame, and how “failure” is treated by the country. Wrestling did bring home two medals in men — both well-supported by a foreign coach, an Indian coach, a dedicated physio and the backing of a federation, which arbitrarily refused to send a physio for the 4-member team of women. But at the core of Vinesh’s cry for help is the anguish she has struggled to cope with while trying to win in a stacked field. When critics called for punishment to be meted out to her for having an “ego”, they had forgotten that it was the same confidence that she used for tough takedowns on the mat. An elegant wrestler who has won on the world stage, the authorities didn’t allow Vinesh to fight freely, with all the support she needed and deserved. Being penalised for not medalling was only the last straw.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 14, 2021 under the title ‘Being unsporting’.

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