Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Abhinav Bindra, a Beijing Olympics gold medallist and vocal advocate of athletes’ rights, has called for a “truly active and functional Athletes Commission” in sports bodies to ensure sportspersons’ rights are safeguarded and incidents of sexual harassment of athletes minimised.

Indian former Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra (AFP)

Bindra’s comments come in the wake of Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik’s decision to quit wrestling and Tokyo Games’ bronze medallist grappler Bajrang Punia returning his Padma Shri after Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh’s aide Sanjay Singh won the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) elections.

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Malik, Punia, and two-time World Championships medallist Vinesh Phogat led the protest against Brij Bhushan over his alleged sexual harassment of six female wrestlers. A chargesheet has been filed by Delhi Police against Brij Bhushan and former secretary Vinod Tomar and the case is being heard in Delhi’s Rouse Avenue court.

“I firmly believe in the importance of robust and active athlete representation through fairly elected Athletes’ Commissions (AC) across sports. Athlete representatives play a key role in defending athlete interests,” Bindra, India’s individual Olympic gold medallist, told HT from New York.

“While the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) established an Athletes’ Commission (AC) last year, it’s vital that it becomes truly active and functional. I also urge different sports federations to prioritise setting up their own athletes commissions. Including athletes in the decision-making process is not only empowering for the leadership but also instrumental in the development of both sport and athletes,” he said.

IOA’s 10-member AC came into effect in November 2022 and is headed by six-time boxing world champion MC Mary Kom. Other members include table tennis ace Sharath Kamal, six-time winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan, London Olympics bronze medallist Gagan Narang, former Indian hockey captain Rani Rampal, Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Mirabai Chanu, double Olympics medallist PV Sindhu, fencer Bhavani Devi, former shot putter Om Prakash Singh Karhana, and former rower Bajrang Lal. Bindra and former men’s hockey team captain Sardar Singh are ex-officio members by virtue of being members of the Athletes Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) respectively.

AC’s role came into focus earlier this year too when it was reported that a public statement in support of the protesting wrestlers was blocked by a senior member, raising questions over the body’s independence.

Bindra said athletes have a significant role to play in administration while adding that the skills needed to run sports bodies go beyond the knowledge accrued in the field of play.

“Athletes certainly have a significant role to play in the administration of sports but the critical factor is the presence of competent individuals who can run organisations with the best governance and ethical practices. The expertise required to manage sports federations effectively goes beyond the experience of being an athlete. It’s about bringing in professionals who understand both the sport and the nuances of administration,” said Bindra, 41.

Bindra also called for formulation of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) across Indian sport to handle cases of sexual harassment with due sensitivity.

“Since the onset of the wrestling case, I’ve been advocating for the urgent need to establish adequate safeguarding measures and policies across sports in India,” he said.

“This is a sensitive and critical issue that requires careful handling. Following the lead of the IOC, which offers a safeguarding officers course, we need trained safeguarding officers in all sports organisations. Additionally, clearly defined policies, protocols, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to handle such cases are imperative.”

Speaking about the unrest in Indian wrestling, Bindra expressed his sadness at the “trust deficit” between the protesting wrestlers and WFI.

“As a fellow athlete and an Indian sports fan, witnessing the developments in wrestling this year has been deeply saddening. The year began with wrestlers taking to the streets and culminated in them returning awards or quitting, underscoring a massive trust deficit between the authorities and the aggrieved athletes,” said Bindra.

“This trust deficit can only be bridged by establishing clearly defined protocols that incorporate best practices in handling such matters. Greater sensitivity, empathy, and a transparent approach are essential in rebuilding this trust. Our inability to adeptly manage such sensitive issues was prominently highlighted and it underscores the urgency of implementing effective measures by establishing clearly defined policies and protocols for case management.”

Thakur distances himself from wrestlers

Union sports minister Anurag Thakur refused to comment on Punia returning his Padma Shri. “I have already spoken enough. No more comments,” he said in Bengaluru on Saturday. “Our athletes won over 100 medals both in the Asian Games (in Hangzhou) and in the Asian Para Games. These stories need to be highlighted.”

In another development, Deaflympics gold medallist Virender Singh, better known as ‘Goonga Pehlwan’, said he would return his Padma Shri to the government in solidarity with Sakshi Malik. The three-time Deaflympics champion was awarded the Padma Shri in 2021.

“I will also return the Padma Shri for my sister and the country’s daughter. Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji, I am proud of your daughter and my sister Sakshi Malik,” Virender wrote on X.

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