Olympic selection disputes: Sushil Kumar v Wrestling Federation of India

Published 21 June 2016 By: Saurabh Mishra

Sushil_Kumar_Wrestling

The rather long-drawn saga regarding India’s representative for the competitive wrestling event in the freestyle 74 kg category at the Olympic Games in Rio finally seems to have approached a conclusion.

Having moved the High Court in New Delhi, Sushil Kumar awaited a decision regarding the selection process for the Games, hoping that the Court sees merit in his plea for selection by trials, rather than an automatic route of selection.

However on 6 June 2016, the High Court, for reasons we’ll explore below, dismissed his plea, much to Kumar’s disappointment.

FACTS

  • The dispute involved Sushil Kumar and the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). The WFI chose to select Narsingh Yadav in the freestyle 74 kg category, leaving Sushil Kumar without a place in the squad.
  • Sushil Kumar won back to back Olympic medals in 2008 and 2012, winning bronze and silver respectively in the 66 kg freestyle category.1
  • In 2013, the International Wrestling Federation (Now United World Wrestling) decided to scrap the freestyle 60 kg and 66 kg weight categories for the Rio Olympic Games 2016.2
  • At the time, Kumar expressed his desire to move up a weight class in order to compete in the freestyle 74 kg category.3 The following year, at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, he went on to win the gold medal in the 74 kg category,4 and even though his competition was modest, his participation in Rio was foreseeable. Since Glasgow however, Kumar has not participated in any event, citing an injury as the main reason for his absence from events such as the Asian Games in Incheon and the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas.
  • At the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas, Narsingh Yadav won the bronze medal in the freestyle 74 kg category and, as was tradition, the WFI awarded him the position to represent India at the Rio 2016.5
  • Sushil Kumar disputed the decision of the WFI, claiming that since the berth is allotted to the nation and not the athlete, selection by way of trials ought to be conducted.6

SELECTION BY TRADITION vs. SELECTION BY TRIALS

The WFI awarded Yadav the Olympic berth in the 74 kg category as a result of his bronze medal at the World Championships in Las Vegas, which is a qualifying tournament for the Olympic Games.7 The WFI’s decision was based upon their common practice or tradition whereby the athlete who secures the berth at the qualifying tournament in a particular category is selected to compete at the Games in that category.8 Unlike many other Olympic selection procedures, WFI has no formal procedure in place for such selections, and no set of regulations that govern the process.

Sushil Kumar took issue with this. Given his illustrious wrestling career and the fact that there is no formal procedure for selections, he contested the decision and demanded that selection be determined by way of formal trials. Trials in Indian wrestling are not entirly without precedent. In 1996, selection trials were held in order to ascertain the athlete eligible to represent the nation in Atlanta.9 Prior to the Games, Kaka Pawar had managed to secure a wildcard entry for the nation. However, the WFI decided to select Pappu Yadav for the same category, prompting Pawar to call for a trial which he would later go on to lose.

However, this instance forms the exception to the practice followed by the WFI, whereby an athlete who secures the berth in concern is automatically selected for the respective event. Furthermore, in 2004, the Delhi High Court provided support to the aforementioned tradition by way of its ruling in a case involving Kripa Shankar Patel and Yogeshwar Dutt.10 In that case, the Court held that the wrestler who had secured the berth, in this case Dutt, was entitled to go to the Olympics, given that this was a common practice as far as the WFI was concerned.11 A final concern of the WFI’s is that allowing for selection by way of a trial may prompt further challenges from athletes with regard to the selection of the other athletes.12

Eager to conclude the matter quickly and focus on the approaching Games, the WFI sought a directive from the Ministry of Sports. However, the Ministry responded by emphasizing the autonomy of the WFI and stating that any decision in order to be final would have to be taken by the WFI itself13.

Keen to end the impasse, Sushil Kumar applied to the Delhi High Court last month to determine the issue of whether he was entitled to a trial.14

 

THE COURT HEARING

Kumar’s submissions in Court primarily relied upon Article 13 of the National Sports Code, as well as a set of guidelines issued by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, claiming that the same called for trials to be conducted for every international event.15

During the hearing, the Court gave indications that it seemed opposed to the idea of allowing selection trials. In particular, it acknowledged the past practice of the WFI whereby the wrestler who had secured the qualifying berth for the weight class in question would be the Olympic representative in that particular weight class.16

Indeed, the Court pointed out the fact that Kumar had made three consecutive appearances at the Olympics by virtue of having secured the respective berth in each case.17

…this Court on perusal of the record finds that without exception, only the quota winner has represented India in wrestling in Olympics without undergoing any trial. From the list of Indian wrestlers who represented India in 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics, it is apparent that the petitioner by virtue of winning a quota had participated in the said Olympics without undergoing any further trial.

The Court questioned why a policy which Kumar had previously benefitted from on multiple occasions was being questioned in this instance, simply because he had failed to make the cut.18

Kumar in his submission had stated that a trial as requested was in fact prescribed by the National Sports Code. The Court opposed the argument by explaining that the National Sports Code grants federations such as the WFI with the flexibility and the autonomy to decide its mode of selection19 and that a statutory mandate, as was being implied by the wrestler, did not exist at all.20

The Code, 2011 does not make it mandatory for WFI to hold trials for selection of wrestlers for Olympics just two to three months prior to the event…The Code, 2011 gives full flexibility and autonomy to WFI to decide the process of selection and when to hold a trial. It only stipulates that if selection trials are required, they should be held two months in advance.

On 6 June 2016, the Court delivered its verdict21 dismissing Sushil Kumar’s plea for trials and acknowledged that Narsingh Yadav’s selection could not be said to be unreasonable.22

Apart from the past practice of the WFI, the Court also acknowledged the fact that Sushil Kumar had not competed in the relevant category since the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Citing the need to ensure optimum preparation, the Court stated that a trial this close to the Games would not be in the furtherance of national interest, especially given the chance of injury to the athletes. Additionally, the Court pointed out that the WFI had indeed conducted trials for selection for the World Championships in 2015, which was the qualifying tournament for the Rio 2016 olympics in this instance.23

This Court finds that it is not disputed that the WFI conducted a fair and transparent selection trial prior to the qualification event i.e. World Championship September 2015 in a bid to ensure that the best Athlete represents the country in the qualification event and the country has the best chance to secure a berth in the Olympics.

The Court was clear about its intention to not interfere in the working of a national federation barring scenarios of manifest arbitrariness and contravention of settled practices, thus allowing the WFI to make the final decision in the matter.24

...this Court is of the view that a writ Court will not interfere in the exercise of discretion of the National Sports Federation and substitute its own judgment except where the discretion is shown to have been exercised in an arbitrary or capricious or perverse manner or contrary to settled principles or practices.

 

Concluding note

The decision of the Court is in keeping with the earlier decision in 2004 regarding the Games in Athens. Such an outcome is one that was largely foreseeable, given the past practice of the WFI in this regard. However, the decision will be debated due to the absence of a set procedure to be adhered to.

Indeed, one of the arguments put forth by Kumar regarded a comparison to sports such as archery and shooting, the national federations for which held trials in accordance with their selection criteria.25 Further, his counsel referred to the practice prevalent in nations such as Iran, Russia and the USA, where the federations select athletes through a system of trials. However, the Court saw no merit in the submission on the facts and stated that there exists no compelling need for all Federations to adopt a particular practice.27

The fact that some countries in the world follow the practice of holding trials four to three months prior to the Olympics does not mean that the same policy must be followed by all the National Sports Federations. There is always more than one good method of selection. Since the process of selection adopted by respondent no. 4-WFI is not arbitrary or perverse, this Court cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the experts.

It remains to be seen whether Sushil Kumar approaches the Supreme Court with an appeal to the decision arrived at. As things stand however, Narsingh Yadav seems poised to represent India in Rio.

 

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Author

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh Mishra

Saurabh is a lawyer working as counsel for Star India Pvt. Ltd. He is also associated with the Football Players Association of India (FPAI). He received his B.A./LLB from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, and was a recipient of the Graduate Scholar Award at the Fifth International Conference on Sport and Society in July 2014. He has previously worked with organisations such as Adidas and Atletico de Kolkata, a franchise in the Hero Indian Super League.

 

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