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Let them play safely 

While a few cases get exposed, several others go unreported because the individuals do not want to jeopardise their careers
Last Updated : 30 January 2023, 21:23 IST

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Some of the top Indian wrestlers, including Olympians Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Mallik, and Bajrang Punia, had protested at the Jantar Mantar in the freezing cold of New Delhi for three days starting on January 18, demanding the ouster of BJP Member of Parliament Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). They accused him of “sexually harassing” the women wrestlers and running WFI in a dictatorial manner.

They ended their protest after Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur assured them of an impartial investigation and report by a team formed to look into the matter. They are, however, dissatisfied with the inclusion of Olympic wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt on the oversight committee, whom they believe supports Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

An athletics coach filed a sexual harassment complaint against Haryana Sports Minister Sandeep Singh, a former Olympian, on December 31, forcing him to hand over control of the sports ministry to the Chief Minister.

These incidents have highlighted the sense of insecurity that exists among Indian sportswomen. While Chandigarh police are investigating the case after an FIR was lodged, the Haryana government has set up a high-powered Special Investigation Team led by Additional Director General Mamta Singh to inquire into the matter.

An assistant football coach was called back home while the Under-17 women’s football team was in Norway on an exposure tour in preparation for the World Cup that was held in India in October last year. He was accused of serious misconduct. The girl, who was not a complainant, had been missing from her room for three consecutive nights and was seen coming out of the coach’s room after a thorough search on the third night.

In yet another incident, an international cyclist reported that she had been subjected to sexual harassment by her coach, R K Sharma, while she was in Slovenia for international exposure as part of her training schedule in preparation for the Asian Track Cycling Championship. The coach barged into her room and asked her to sleep with him, failing which her career would be ruined. She was directed to return to India soon after she complained to the CEO of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme to save her from further harassment. The coach’s contract was terminated after an inquiry by an Internal Complaints Committee found him guilty.

Another sailor, too, reported sexual harassment by her coach when training abroad.

While a few cases get exposed, several others go unreported because the individuals do not want to jeopardise their careers. A good number of them are from humble backgrounds, and none is willing to let go of an opportunity that would promote them to parvenus on the social ladder and national fame. Most of these girls, in their teens nurturing international ambitions, are more vulnerable to relatively elderly predators who, being aware of their intense desire to make it to the top, exploit their aspirations. The perks, the prize money, and even lucrative government jobs are allurements good enough for some to compromise for a better future.

The fact that two other cyclists of the national team complained to the Internal Complaints Committee of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) about the sexual harassment by R K Sharma after the cyclist complained from Slovenia is a clear indicator that most sportswomen prefer to remain silent instead of jeopardising their career, which could catapult them to top positions in the country.

P Nagarajan, a Chennai-based athletics coach, was arrested after a 19-year-old athlete filed a formal complaint accusing him of sexually harassing her. Two months after she lodged the complaint, seven others followed suit. One of them confessed to having been sexually abused by him when she was just 13. It’s not surprising if some even leave sports due to such predators.

According to a report, of the 45 complaints of sexual harassment received by the SAI between 2010 and 2019, 29 were against coaches. On being found guilty, the services of two people were terminated, five had to face pay cuts, and others were let off with transfers or reductions in pension.

After the media drew attention to the cyclist’s complaint, the SAI dashed off an advisory to all sports federations, requesting that they ensure that a female coach accompanies any team that has female members. This may do little to help improve the situation, as some female coaches join forces with their male counterparts in harassing athletes.

The assistant cycling coach, Gautamani Devi, was said to have been working with coach Sharma to harass the cyclist before the team left for Slovenia. That a woman’s presence will help provide security can in no way be taken for granted. The SAI directive to appoint a Compliance Officer in each federation to communicate with athletes could help reduce sexual harassment incidents. The compliance officer has to be active and generally have a surveillance net over the athletes. Not just the coaches, but even the psychiatrists, masseurs, and physiotherapists could be a source of nuisance for the sportswomen.

In order to protect the sportswomen from dubious elements with lascivious intents, all sportspersons should have the mobile number of the Compliance Officers so that they can be apprised of the misdemeanours of coaches and other officials. It should be the responsibility of every sports federation to keep itself well informed of the goings-on in their federations. Discreet inquiries should be made to ascertain if coaches subject their pupils
to any kind of mental or sexual
harassment.

In proven cases of sexual harassment or rape, the concerned federation should not hesitate to file an FIR. Any kind of fear in the minds of athletes can adversely affect their performance. The respect and trust between the coach and the athletes can go a long way in producing top athletes and players who will bring laurels to the country in the international arena.

(The writer is a retired Inspector General of Police, CRPF.)

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Published 30 January 2023, 17:10 IST

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