Indian wrestlers threat of tossing medals in Ganges reminiscent of Muhammad Ali

Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat is detained by the police while attempting to march to India's new parliament, just as it was being inaugurated by prime minister Narendra Modi, during a protest against Brij Bhushan Singh, the wrestling federation chief, over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation, in New Delhi on 28 May 2023AFP

On 28 May, the biggest sports related news from India was the final of the Indian Premier League (IPL), which got postponed and moved to the reserve day due to incessant rain in Ahmedabad.  

But on that very day in New Delhi another incident took place which didn’t get the media attention it deserved.

On that day, top Indian wrestlers like Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Sangeeta Phogat led a march to the Indian parliament in a protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Singh for sexually assaulting female athletes.

Indian wrestlers Sangeeta Phogat (2nd L), Bajrang Punia (C) and Vinesh Phogat (2nd R) attempt to march to India's new parliament

The wrestlers, who have waved the Indian flag in global meets like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, were stopped on their tracks by the law enforcement agencies.

No authority figure came out to appease the athletes, who have been protesting on and off since 23 April. Instead, the athletes were battered, beaten and detained by the Delhi police.

The harrowing images and clips of world renowned female wrestlers like Sakshi, Vinesh and Sangeeta getting mauled by male members of Delhi police are all over the social media.

Indian wrestlers Sangeeta Phogat (L), and Vinesh Phogat (C) are detained by the police

In spite of the seriousness of the issue and the individuals involved in the protest, hardly any action has been taken against the accused.

Two cases have been filed against the accused Singh, who is a law maker for India’s ruling party BJP, but the proceedings are progressing at a snail’s pace. Moreover, Singh is still the federation’s president.

The wrestlers were not happy with the steps taken and wanted a swift and more stringent action against the accused.

Another interesting aspect of the ordeal is the silence from the majority of the Indian athletes in social media, who are usually quick to give their two cents on any issue.

WFI president Brij Bhushan Singh

The accused is a powerful member of BJP, who has vehemently denied every allegation laid against him and told media that the wrestlers were conducting this protest under the influence of opposition leaders.

With this statement, Singh successfully gave the incident a political twist, which opened the gates for BJP and PM Modi’s blind followers to turn the matter into a nationalism debate.

The athletes who had won medals for India were for now being called unpatriotic, agents of the anti-national elements.

Heartbroken and insulted, the Indian wrestlers on Tuesday took a drastic decision. All of them together announced on social media that they will toss their international medals into the Ganges river.

“For us, our medals are sacred, and so is the river Ganges. This holy river is the perfect custodian of our medals, not the system that shields the offender,” they said in a statement written in Hindi.

Later that day, farmers’ leader Naresh Tikait talked them out of it and they have postponed this activity for the moment.

The Indian wrestlers’ call to throw away their medals was in a way reminiscent of another athlete, who had chucked his gold medal into the river in protest of unfair treatment on the grounds of racism. His name, of course, is Muhammad Ali.

Ali won the gold medal in boxing in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Ali in his biography, ‘The Greatest’ recalled how he wore the gold medal for 48 hours straight and even wore it during sleeping."

After returning to his home in Louisville, he went to a restaurant which was an ‘all-whites’ establishment, meaning only Caucasians could eat at the eatery.

Muhammad Ali

Ali, who was then named Cassius Clay, thought there is no way a restaurant would deny him service after winning a gold medal for the US in the Olympics.

He went there wearing his gold medal, was denied service. He then had an altercation with an all-white bikers’ group. After that, an angry, disillusioned Ali threw away his gold medal in the Ohio river. This incident sowed the seeds for his life-long battle against discrimination on the grounds of race.

Will the Indian wrestlers follow the footsteps of Ali if their demands aren’t met, is still left to be seen.

However, this incident once again proves a couple of things:

1. Sports and politics should never mix.

2. Still, sports and politics always mix.