Wrestling in Court for the Rio Olympics: Sushil Kumar vs Narsingh Yadav

The issue has sparked a debate on the merits and demerits of the Olympic Qualification System and the extent to which courts can intervene in matters pertaining to sports.

The Olympic Flag flies in front of "Christ the Redeemer" statue during a blessing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro August 19, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

The Olympic Flag flies in front of “Christ the Redeemer” statue during a blessing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro August 19, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

A raging controversy has ensued over the past few days with wrestlers Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav clashing with each other over a spot in the upcoming Rio Olympic Games. The bone of contention has been the 74 kg men’s freestyle category slot with both athletes staking claim to it with their respective credentials. Kumar, India’s most successful individual Olympian has taken to social media to plead his case and has also moved court after it was reported that his name was missing in the list of athletes selected for training at the preparatory camp.

The issue has made administrators, lawyers and sports enthusiasts debate the merits and demerits of the Olympic Qualification System, the extent to which courts can intervene in matters pertaining to sports and the possible ramifications of the final verdict in this case. To understand the case between Kumar and Yadav better, it is important to examine the way the qualification system works. One must also be made aware of the changes made in the sport by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Olympic Qualification System

Wrestling for men at the 2016 Olympics is split into two disciplines, freestyle and Greco-Roman. Each discipline is further divided into six different weight categories each, with freestyle including the following classes: 57 kg, 65 kg, 74 kg, 86 kg, 97 kg and 125 kg. However, these categories have been in place since 2013 only.

There are four separate phases which make up the Olympic Qualification System. The World Championship being the first phase, followed by the second phase which is comprised of Continental Qualification Tournaments and two International Qualification Tournaments, which make up the third and fourth phase, respectively.

Kumar competed in the last two editions of the Olympics in the 66 kg category and won back to back medals, an unprecedented feat for an Indian athlete. Subsequently, the sport found itself out of favour with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which found that its viewership and popularity had both declined in addition to wrestling ranking low on several technical criteria. An executive board of the IOC then recommended that wrestling be suspended from the 2020 Olympic Games for all these reasons.

Federation Internationale des Luttes Associees, (FILA), now known as United World Wrestling, in an attempt to modernise the sport decided to rejig the weight classes amidst a slew of other reforms so that wrestling could get back into the Olympic fold. While the IOC decided to reinstate the sport into the Olympics, it meant that athletes had to adapt to the new set of rules and change their classes.

Yogeshwar Dutt, who won a bronze medal in London decided to move up to the 65 kg class from the 60 kg class and Kumar decided to compete in the higher weight class, as neither of them wanted a face off in a possible scenario where there was only one quota.

Kumar started competing in the 74 kg class and went on to win a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in this category, albeit against a modest field.

One quota for each weight class

As per the Olympic Qualification System, each participating country can win only one quota place in each weight class. Yadav had become the first wrestler to bag the quota for India in the 74 kg category when he won a bronze medal in the World Wrestling Championships at Las Vegas last September. Kumar had not taken part in the championships due to a shoulder injury.

While it may seem, at first glance, that the quota goes towards the wrestler who won it, the final decision remains with the country which the athlete represents. This is because the Olympic Qualification System says that each slot goes towards the Nationality of Competitors (NOC) rather than any individual. As there is often a time gap between these qualifying events and the games, this rule seeks to ensure that each country sends in its best athlete. If the player who has won the spot is injured, out of form or is unable to compete for other reasons, the quota system ensures that the spot is not wasted and goes to the next best athlete. After an athlete wins a quota for his country, others representing the NOC are not allowed to take part in other qualification tournaments and Kumar’s coach has complained that Kumar could have easily gone on to get the quota himself in the remaining qualification events.

He has therefore staked a claim to the spot owing to his Olympic record and has insisted that a trial be held to determine who finally gets to represent India at Rio. However, post the Commonwealth Games, he has not made too many competitive appearances owing to injury which has cast further doubt on his abilities.

Yadav, on the other hand has been in a rich vein of form and has won bronze medals at the 2014 Asian Games and the 2015 Asian Wrestling Championships, to add to his success. He has opposed any form of trial and said that he has done everything possible to earn the quota and also due to the fact that conducting trials now could lead to injury, hampering the winner’s chance of a medal at the Olympics.

WFI to take the call

The fight has put the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) in a fix with its president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, saying that it would conduct trials if the sports ministry asked them to do so. On the other hand, Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has said the ministry will not intervene in the controversy saying that the WFI, being an autonomous body has to resolve the issue on its own. The WFI is understandably wary of conducting trials as it fears that doing so could set a tiresome precedent. If Yadav is asked to fight a trial with Kumar, it could lead to a possible domino effect, which could see spots in other categories being challenged as well.

Considering the deadline for finalising names is July 18, the WFI does not want to get into this right now and would much rather focus on the preparatory camp. However, the federation is at fault for putting the athletes in such a position. Although the trend has been to usually send the athlete who has won the quota but there is no fixed policy from the WFI that governs selection in cases where a challenge appears for the slot. Further, Kumar claims that officials of the WFI had assured him that trials would be held and even sent him to a training camp in Georgia.

Earlier cases

This is not the first time that such a dispute has come up. In 1996, no Indian wrestler had qualified for the Olympics but the country went on to receive a wildcard entry. A similar situation unfolded that time and trials had to be held between Kaka Pawar and Pappu Yadav, two 48 kg Greco-Roman wrestlers.

The legal precedent seems equal for both Kumar and Yadav. In one such instance, which Yadav might be compelled to cite in court, Dutt himself faced litigation previously on the same issue. Before the 2004 Athens Olympics, wrestler Kripa Shankar Patel had moved the Delhi high court after Dutt, who had won the quota, was named in the squad. Patel had made appeals to hold trials to decide who would be representing India. The court ruled in favour of Dutt saying that the wrestler who has won the quota should be allowed to go unless he is unfit or out of form.

The issue also came up in 2014 when the Delhi high court found in the case of Amit Kumar Dhankhar vs Union of India & Ors, that according to the guidelines mentioned in the National Sports Code, it was necessary to hold selection trials before major international sporting events like the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

It is the National Sports Code that Kumar has been relying upon when he moved a petition in the Delhi high court on May 16. He relies on the ruling given in the Dhankhar case stating that as per the sports code, separate trials are to be conducted for every international event as the spot belongs to the country and not an individual wrestler. However, the court has declared that that it would intervene in the matter only as a last resort and directed the federation to give a hearing to Kumar. The sports ministry and the WFI have been asked to file their affidavits in the matter, to be heard again on May 27.

Policies and the role of federations

The ongoing case has led to a debate on the policies adopted by national federations in such cases. While there is a mechanism in place on paper to deal with such issues, a sense of obligation is missing on the part of these bodies that have been set up to promote and develop the sport. While the focus of these entities must be on settling disputes before them, the Kumar-Yadav case could mean that aggrieved athletes in the future may also opt to go towards courts instead of trusting the federations, which lends a sense of redundancy to their very existence.

With respect to wrestling itself, it is apparent that the lack of a transparent selection policy has confused wrestlers and could hamper the chances of athlete doing well at international sporting events, if not addressed immediately. A leaf can be taken out of the book of the National Rifle Association of India which formulated a strict selection policy a few years ago which saw to it that a weighted average system was used where consistency could be gauged based on performance over a long period of time. The WFI and the sports ministry now need to put their heads together and chalk out a method free of loopholes, which is fair to the player and is in the best interest of the athlete and the Indian contingent heading towards Rio.

Lokesh Kaza is a student at NALSAR University of Law and is currently interning at the Sports Law and Policy Centre, Bengaluru.