IT’s encouraging that Parliament has discussed the safety and welfare of women athletes who are vulnerable to being mentally and sexually harassed by men in positions of power, right from coaches to officials of sports federations. Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, assuring MPs that concrete steps have been taken to establish a system of reporting abuse and tackling it, said the government ‘emphasises ethical conduct as a key factor in the fair administration of the sporting disciplines’. He also detailed various steps taken by the Sports Ministry to ensure that female sportspersons are not sexually or mentally harassed, and added: ‘It is also imperative for the sport that individuals observe the highest level of ethical conduct.’
While these are laudable thoughts, the fact is that the problem is too complex to be solved by advisories — the issue of sexual harassment of women athletes by coaches/officials can be tackled with systemic cleansing. One aspect that seems to have gone unaddressed is the power imbalance between the athlete and the guilty official, who could be the presiding deity of a sports association, having unlimited power to crush a sportsperson’s career. Young female athletes, often coming from an underprivileged background and staying at a sports training centre far away from home, stay silent as sports federation officials and coaches possess complete authority over their career and future. In team events, this can lead to the axing of a sportsperson who spurns the advances of a coach or an official; in individual sports, such a strong-willed player can be penalised citing indiscipline or lack of fitness.
The matter becomes almost intractable when the individual heading a sports federation also happens to be a politician — and several associations are, indeed, controlled by politicians or their close relatives. This is the case with the Wrestling Federation of India, which is headed by BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has been accused of harassing female wrestlers. The political class must indulge in introspection. The mixing of roles can cause a conflict of interest, leading to the sacrifice of the interests of sportspersons and sports.
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