Asian Games: More Than Its Share Of Controversies Even Before Team Leaves Indian Shores
Even as the Indian contingent prepares to fly out to China with the target of achieving the 100-medal mark for the first time in the history of the Games, the country's grapplers, especially Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia will be in the spotlight.
The deepening crisis in wrestling ahead of the Asian Games turned out to be the biggest controversy in the run-up to the continental showpiece, which will begin in Hangzhou on September 23. Even as the Indian contingent prepares to fly out to China with the target of achieving the 100-medal mark for the first time in the history of the Games, the country's grapplers, especially Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia will be in the spotlight, as he along with five others launched a campaign to oust the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, to ensure "safety of women grapplers".
Here are some of the controversies, which cast a shadow on Indian sport as the athletes prepared for the continental Games.
WRESTLING: The sport took centre stage not for sporting achievements but off the mat issues as some of the most decorated grapplers in the country, including Olympic medallists Punia and Sakshi Malik and 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat protested for nearly two months at the Jantar Mantar demanding the ouster of BJP politician and WFI president Brij Bhushan, alleging sexual harassment of seven female wrestlers, including a minor.
The Sports Ministry swung into action and dissolved the federation, handing the responsibility to run the sport in the hands of an Indian Olympic Association-constituted ad-hoc committee, which courted its own set of controversies before holding trials to select the contingent for the Asian Games.
Punia and Vinesh got exemption from appearing in the trials and went to train abroad even as the khaps of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh became divided on who should go for the Asian Games. As luck would have it, Vinesh (53kg category) got injured and Antim Panghal, who had been kept as standby for the Asian Games, and had been protesting the 'favours' given to the Asian Games gold medallist, finally got her wish to compete in the quadrennial event.
Vishal Kaliraman (65kg freestyle) was not so lucky, as Punia went ahead to train in Kyrgyzstan after getting the exemption from trials and will be flying directly to Hangzhou. But the events of the last six months would have taken a toll on all the competing grapplers, as national camps were postponed, trials re-scheduled several times and the ad-hoc committee's indecision delayed the selection process.
FOOTBALL: The club-versus-country debate once again became a sticking point, with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) sweating over whether the 12-team Indian Super League (ISL) would release players for the Asian Games.
Following several rounds of discussions and hectic parleys, talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri and ace defender Sandesh Jhingan were finally released for national duty.
Thirteen players were initially not released by their respective ISL clubs, including Jhingan and first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. A 17-member team with Chhetri as the only notable face was named initially. But AIFF announced a revised squad of 22 after hectic parleys with Jhingan in the list, besides two more senior players in Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga as late as Friday.
The indecision could well come in the way of the players' performance in Hangzhou. Even as the football team departed on Sunday night, Chinglensana and Lalchungnunga are still waiting for their travel documents from the Chinese embassy and will miss India's opening match against China on Tuesday.
KURASH: It is extremely rare -- or perhaps unheard of -- for the selection process of a team being investigated by the Crime Branch of Delhi Police. Kurash, a martial arts sport, was, and continues to be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons with the Delhi High Court ordering an investigation by the Delhi Police Crime Branch to get to the root of the selection process.
Kurash player Neha Thakur had filed a petition in the Delhi High Court alleging discrepancy in trials for the Asian Games team selection. She also alleged that her fellow competitors intimidated her and "attacked" her at the Indian Olympic Association headquarters in Delhi.
Neha alleged that she was attacked with the "intent to kill" by her competitor when she went to submit the documents to prove that she was eligible to be included in the squad for the Asian Games. The court's decision on the issue is awaited.
EQUESTRIAN: Indian dressage player Gaurav Pundir alleged in the run-up to the Asian Games that the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI) created several obstacles in his way to ensure that he did not qualify for the continental showpiece.
Pundir added that the EFI hid crucial detail from him that Indian horses cannot compete in China because of certain quarantine regulations, which cost him crucial time in searching for a suitable horse in Europe or elsewhere.
"(By hiding this bit about China not allowing Indian horses), they (EFI officials) ensured that I could not travel abroad in search of a horse and train in Europe for nearly a year. Their aim was to eliminate me from the Asian Games selection process," alleged Pundir.
He said that while the pre-COVID selection criteria entailed qualifying in just one of five trials, it was changed to qualifying in three out of four trials in the new selection process set after the pandemic.
Another young rider, Chirag Khandal, "fed up" with the "apathy and vindictiveness" of the federation quit the sport at the age of 20. Chirag's decision came following his exclusion from the Asian Games squad despite accumulating the required Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs) to make the cut for the event.
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