NEW DELHI: Triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, one of India's most decorated women wrestlers, has accused her federation chief and several coaches of sexually harassing multiple athletes.
Phogat made the allegations at a public protest in New Delhi on Wednesday, backed by several other top wrestlers, male and female.
Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) — who is also an MP for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — and trainers were culpable, she told reporters.
"Women wrestlers have been sexually harassed at national camps by coaches and also the WFI president," she said.
"I know at least 10-20 girls in the national camp who have come and told me their stories," she told reporters.
The allegations come months after the coach of the country's national cycling team was sacked following sexual harassment charges.
India is a deeply hierarchical society and Phogat said many wrestlers were intimidated from coming forward because of their humble origins.
"They are scared because of their family background. They can't fight them because they are powerful."
"Wrestling is our only livelihood and they are not letting us do it. Our only option is to die. So might as well do good before dying," she added.
She did not state that she was a victim herself.
Fellow wrestler and Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, who was also part of the protest, endorsed the allegations.
"Athletes work hard to win medals for the country, but the federation has done nothing but let us down," she tweeted.
India's #MeToo movement gathered momentum in 2018 after a Bollywood actress accused a senior actor of sexual harassment.
Soon after, women from other backgrounds came forward with multiple allegations, including against a former government minister, but activists say there has been little fundamental change.
According to local media reports, Singh denied the allegations, saying he was "ready to be hanged" if even a single woman wrestler proved the sexual harassment charge.
India's sports ministry has asked the federation to respond to the allegations within 72 hours, reports said.
Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia, who is male and also joined the protest, accused Singh of running the federation in a high-handed manner.
"The job of the federation is to support the players, and take care of their sporting needs. If there is a problem, it has to be solved," he tweeted.
"But what if the federation itself creates the problem? Now we have to fight, we will not back down."
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