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Bajrang Punia vs WFI: Federation's control over athletes in spotlight

Bajrang Punia has been without a full-time physiotherapist as he recovers from a knee injury JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Wrestling is arguably India's most successful Olympic sport in recent years and it's representatives some of India's highest profile athletes. Look behind the medals and global recognition, though, and there's a turf battle that makes its way to the public eye every once in a while.

The latest flashpoint was Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang Punia's claim (on Thursday) that he was being denied a physiotherapist, but the underlying issue is the increasing control the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is looking to exercise over the career of Indian wrestlers

What happened with Bajrang?

On Friday, a day after Olympic bronze medalist Bajrang Punia complained about the lack of a full time physiotherapist that was hampering his recovery from a knee injury, the WFI issued a statement suggesting that Punia had been provided two physios; whom he chose not to work with.

Competing for the first time since he won an Olympic bronze, Punia had a difficult time at the selection trials for the Asian Championships, only narrowly qualifying for the team. He later told reporters that he was still recovering from a knee injury sustained before the Olympics and added that he had been asking the TOPS authorities for a full-time physiotherapist to help him recover. "But no one was made available to me. I had also asked [his sponsors] JSW but they also sounded helpless." He said JSW told him they couldn't attach personnel without the federation's permission.

What is the WFI's response?

They said a personal physiotherapist had been sanctioned but the individual -- Dr. Anand Kumar -- had not been relieved by his employers, the Indian Railways. The WFI said they had also provided two other physiotherapists to the national camp at the Sports Authority of India but Punia had chosen not to avail their services.

In general, the WFI has said athletes will no longer be permitted to work exclusively with a personal physio. All physios must be part of the national camp, where they are expected to work with multiple athletes. However these rules are not implemented uniformly. At least one international medalist has been permitted to retain - unofficially - the physiotherapist he has worked with for the past several years.

Is this the first incident regarding physios?

Reports emerged before the Tokyo Olympics that women's wrestler, Vinesh Phogat, had sought a personal physiotherapist at the Games. The physio was an employee of the Olympic Gold Quest organization, which had supported Vinesh. WFI president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh then told The Indian Express that private bodies were 'spoiling the athletes'. While physios are an essential member of the support staff for athletes participating in high contact sports, the Federation's stand is that the use of personal physios had led to 'indiscipline' amongst athletes. However, after initially threatening to suspend Phogat from the sport, the WFI relented.

Is this simply about physios or is there a bigger issue here?

Over the last few months, the federation has tightened control over wrestlers. The WFI has said that all contracts signed by wrestlers with potential supporting organisations now have to be approved by them. At least one organization has noted that athletes they have supported previously have been told not to renew their contracts at the end of the month. There are also limitations in the kind of support that can be offered to wrestlers as well.

Similarly, coaches - until the most recent Olympic cycle, elite wrestlers could theoretically train under personal coaches. Post the Tokyo Olympics though, WFI president Singh had come down strongly against athletes' personal coaches. He has said that private coaching impacts general discipline and specifically increases the doping risk. "Doping officials can come anytime at the camps but who is going to check at personal centres," he told PTI.

According to PTI at least four Indian wrestlers, including two at cadet level, have been caught for doping since 2016. Each offence during an international tournament costs the WFI 20,000 Swiss Francs (16 lakh INR) in fines to the sport's global governing body, United World Wrestling (UWW).

Following this, the contracts of all foreign coaches working with Indian wrestlers on an individual capacity had been scrapped. Athletes are now also expected to be regular members of the national camp, failing which they are restricted from being selected to the India team. Ahead of the selection trials for the Asian Championships, 10 women wrestlers --including former World medalist Geeta Phogat and highly rated World junior bronze medalist Anju, were not permitted to compete after they had chosen not to compete in the national camp. While athletes have skipped the national camp for multiple reasons in the past, this was the first time they had been prevented from competing at a selection trial.

Why do athletes want to work with organisations (outside the federation)?

While Indian wrestling has a giant pool of wrestling talent to choose from, the level of sports science and technical expertise is low. For instance, the WFI still does not have a video analyst or a high performance director. Considering the margins at the elite level in wrestling are very fine, the role of support organisations is to provide solutions to wrestlers to bridge these marginal gaps. A major role they play is in providing high quality physiotherapists. This is because, compared to other sports, wrestling is a high contact sport with a greater occurrence of injuries. A personal physio allows an athlete to deal with small injuries immediately rather than let it get worse -- which will happen when there are two physios working with 30 athletes (which is what happens at a national camp).

The federations track record in terms of managing athletes logistics is also poor. Ahead of the Asian qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics, India's women wrestlers only managed to reach the competition city on the day of their matches since flight tickets were inexplicably booked for this date. Additionally while elite wrestlers in the public eye have some basic sort of dietary and medical support in place, this is missing at the junior age groups where it is sorely needed. This gap in capacity is where many private bodies step in. Long before he won the Olympic silver, Ravi Dahiya (for instance) was supported by OGQ through a period of injuries that caused him to miss the 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games.

What is at stake for the WFI, and for the athletes?

The federation typically has enormous power over where a wrestler can compete. Athletes in professional sports like badminton/athletics have no problem traveling with private physios or coaches (Lakshya Sen or PV Sindhu in badminton, for example) since there are so many tournaments on the world tour - for which players don't need permission from the federation to compete in. The only time the federation comes into the picture is for events like the Olympics, Asian Games, and World Championships.

Wrestlers however, almost exclusively compete as part of the national team. Thus, they are a lot more dependent on the federation. If the federation suspends a player, there's no way for them to compete internationally. In recent times though, elite athletes like Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have been able to supercede this system because of their profile. Post the Olympics however, the Federation is tightening the reins.