Swimmer S P Likith heard the official’s clipped voice loud and clear. He was telling Likith to write a letter declaring himself “mentally ill and deaf”. Minutes earlier, the 21-year-old national 100m breaststroke champion from Bengaluru had been offered a bribe to remain silent on his allegations.
This was one of the many bizarre sequences that played out at an international Olympic qualification meet in Uzbekistan in April, when Likith called out attempts by organising officials to manipulate race timings to aid the home swimmers.
This week, the tournament was declared “invalid” by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, and all the scores disappeared from official records.
“Times from a pair of meets in Uzbekistan have been removed from FINA’s official rankings after allegations over timing fraud have been levied against that country,” reported swimmingworldmagazine.com.
The April scandal and a subsequent investigation put the focus on Uzbekistan. The rankings of Uzbek swimmers disappeared from the official listings. A previous event in Uzbekistan also came under scrutiny. The ripple effect impacted the Tokyo Games qualification timings of some Czech swimmers too, said the report.
It wasn’t exactly a whistle that he blew, more a deafening conch, at the April 13-17 Uzbekistan Open Championships. “The first day at the heats, the scoreboard wasn’t displaying, and the heat results on the scoresheet were different, up to 5-7 seconds, from the actual timings which everyone was recording manually. But I thought it must be a glitch and they would change it. That didn’t happen,” recalls Likith, the World School Games bronze medalist of 2012.
“When I complained, they casually told me that this has been happening since 2000-2004. And they have orders to ensure they send 10 Uzbeki swimmers to Tokyo,” he alleges.
He says the result of the 100m butterfly, with top Indian swimmer Sajan Prakash, was brazenly tampered with. But Likith’s first event went without incident. “I didn’t face the problem myself. But I saw it happen to others. Many people don’t have the courage when it happens to them. I am mentally strong. I knew I could fight for them,” he says.
At his second event, the 200m breaststroke, Likith just stood on the diving block, touched the pad, stepped out and dared the organisers to say he had broken a world record in two seconds.
“That’s when the officials told me, this is politics, you don’t get into it. They offered me money to shut up. They said ‘we have to give an explanation why you didn’t swim and just stood there on the block’. So they came up with this idea to get me to give in writing that I was mentally ill and deaf,” he alleges.
He admits that he was frustrated at the inaction, and acted impulsively. “When I realised it wasn’t a glitch and if I didn’t get it out, nobody else would, I got triggered. I’ve seen many swimmers suppress their anger, which isn’t good, and our mouths stay sealed. I did what I had to do,” he says.
Likith says he was not afraid, and would do the same again. “I have nothing to fear. I can stand up for myself. I know what is right, what is wrong. I have parents who gave me a good moral compass and I know they can back me up,” he says.
After his return to India, Likith uploaded YouTube videos of the tampered 100m free and breaststroke races, as evidence. “There are many people who deserve to go to the Olympics, and such corruption ruins years of hard work. Parents who put everything into their children’s careers. My mother, a homemaker, has woken up at 4.30 am for years to ensure my practice goes fine. There will be others and they don’t deserve this corruption,” he says.
This isn’t the first time Likith has taken on organisers. “In 2019, at the All India University meet in Punjab… swimmers had the audacity to walk up to officials and dictate what timing they wanted written. They would dive two seconds early, finish fifth, sixth and be awarded first place. I crashed that whole meet,” he recalls.
The Sports Minister was forced to intervene, but that didn’t shield Likith from the repercussions. “Local swimmers got goons who parked themselves there and wouldn’t let me leave the hotel for the next three days,” he recalls.
Likith says he watched his father work honestly, and move from being a helper at a transport company to becoming a real estate businessman. “Growing up, my house was tiny. I’ve seen my parents struggle financially to secure my admission in a good public school. Their parenting methods were strict. I was beaten up whenever I did something wrong. But that made me bullet-proof,” he says.
“If I’d kept quiet in Uzbekistan and spoken of it now, everyone would’ve thought I’m bluffing. There’s still no official statement. They declared it invalid and will move on. But the next time swimmers see this happen, they’ll know they have a voice,” he says.
And they won’t be threatened to sign an undertaking declaring themselves deaf.