Hunting Grounds - Are Indian sports persons at the mercy of predators?

Editor’s note: We at Nation of Sport, aim to be a platform where stories of wrongdoing are told fearlessly. However, during the reporting of this story we realised that it was just as important to protect the identities of those involved. Specific names, places and other particulars have been changed in this story to protect the anonymity of the survivor. The story of Swati* and Ramesh* narrated by journalist Siva* below is based on true events. We also realised that Indian sport has a long way to go in curbing the issue of sexual harassment, something evidenced by how many officials accused of sexual harassment are still actively involved with Indian sport. Yes, we want the perpetrators to be brought to justice and we want the survivors to find peace of mind. However, until a sea of cases like that of Swati’s are brought to light, justice is a distant dream. Until that day comes, we have to keep telling these stories anonymously.

*names have been changed to protect the identities of the survivor and journalist.

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In early 2018, USA’s gymnastics national team osteopathic physician Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexual assault after allegations were made against him by over 265 women, many of whom were Olympic medallists including Simone Biles, arguably the greatest female gymnast of modern times.

The Nassar case reveals how, even with trusting, watchful and responsible parents, athletes are still subject to abuse. In sports, where the human body is integral to success, the line demarcating a good touch from a bad one often gets blurred, resulting in disastrous consequences.

While the Nassar drama played out in US courtrooms, thousands of miles away in India, there has been an unnerving quiet regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment in Indian sport.

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Divergent paths to the top

Swati* was born to be an athlete. At the age of 14, she participated in a state-wide talent hunt where she impressed scouts with her physical attributes. Earning a full scholarship, she was sent to an elite sports hostel in the state, away from her family and friends.

At the hostel, she was patiently taught by a committed and proven grassroots coach who sharpened her skills. Within months, she was dominating at state meets and made it into the state team. Her performance at the National Championships attracted positive attention and she was soon enlisted into the national team in a younger age group.

It seemed like Swati was primed to become an unrivalled talent in her generation.

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A few years before Swati attained prominence, a man named Ramesh* had taken up coaching of the same sport that Swati played. As an average athlete in college, Ramesh had realized that he had no future as a professional sportsperson. So, he focused his attention on becoming a coach and sought to gain a foothold in formal coaching circles. He, however, had no coaching credentials - neither a degree in physical education nor a coaching certification from a premier institute like National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. To his fortune, around the time he began coaching, a coach in a prominent sporting school in Ramesh’s city quit. Desperate to find a replacement, the school hired Ramesh without insisting on any documentation, relying instead on his self-professed reputation and track record at local tournaments.

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Trapped

A few months into Ramesh’s new job, a group of boys coached by him complained to their parents that he was molesting them. The boys belonged to influential families and once the parents learnt of the coach’s behaviour, they allegedly beat him up. Since no official complaint was filed and nothing was reported in the local media, Ramesh simply quit and found a coaching job at a different school.

Early on in his career, Ramesh was already building relationships within the state and national federations. He was especially close to one of the state’s senior sports administrators, who, till a few years ago, was the long serving chairman of the national team selection committee. This put Ramesh in line for some of the better jobs including being selected as head coach for a national ‘age-group’ team – a term used to define all teams under the age of 18. This team also featured a rising star from Ramesh’s own state.

It was just a matter of time before Swati’s and Ramesh’s paths would collide.

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Swati, along with the age-group team probables, began training at a remote government facility located on the outskirts of a city in western India.

At first, Swati thought that Ramesh was touching her in a “good” way – that he wanted to improve her technique, that the brushes against her back were innocent, that his staring at her as she bent down to stretch was simply him being observant.

An unrung alarm bell was perhaps the fact that, at the end of the first training camp, the physiotherapist quit alleging sexual misconduct against Ramesh. The matter was hushed up.

After the team returned from a continental championship, Swati, Ramesh and two other girls were invited for a felicitation ceremony in a neighbouring town, on the sidelines of a private tournament.

Ramesh told Swati that he had made arrangements for her to stay with a local family. Upon reaching the city, however, she learned that no such accommodation had been arranged and that she, the two other players and Ramesh had to stay in a hotel.

After the felicitation ceremony, Swati’s teammates left for their respective homes on a night train while she and Ramesh returned to the hotel. Later that night, she heard a knock on her door. Afraid and alone, she enquired who it was. She heard Ramesh’s voice. She was both relieved and wary at the same time. Why would the coach come over so late, she wondered? As soon as she opened the door, a drunk Ramesh grabbed her by the shirt and tried to force his way inside.

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The exact details of what transpired that night between Ramesh and Swati remain elusive. However, after the incident, as days turned into weeks and then months, Swati became increasingly listless. She had returned to her sports hostel but her mind kept flashing back to that fateful night. Eventually, she narrated the incident to her hostel coach who then took Swati to the secretary of the local district association who recorded the entire conversation on his mobile phone.

Assured that she had taken the right step, Swati felt a small measure of relief. Now, she hoped that the issue would be resolved and that she could find peace and move on with her sporting career. She was mistaken.

Sources close to matter believe that Ramesh’s influence with the state and national federations prompted a call to the secretary. It is believed that the secretary was asked to delete the recording and to not speak of the matter ever again.

This had a devastating impact on Swati’s mind. Depressed, she started missing classes. Friends at her hostel found her becoming increasingly anxious, sometimes irritable and often seeking to be by herself. Meanwhile, other players who had represented India in the same age-group as Swati went on to play for the senior national team. It appeared that Swati’s career was finished.

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India’s ‘hunting’ grounds

In late September 2018, the #MeToo movement in India brought to light several cases of sexual harassment in Indian work spaces. However, even before the #MeToo movement began in India, there have been many news reports of sexual harassment in Indian sport across the country. A list of some publicly reported cases follows:

In 2009, probables of the Andhra Pradesh women’s cricket team lodged a complaint against Andhra Cricket Association Secretary V. Chamundeshwarnath for demanding sexual favours in exchange for selection to the team. The Andhra Cricket Association subsequently sacked him. Ten years later, though, Chamundeshwarnath holds two esteemed positions – President of Hyderabad District Badminton Association and Vice President of the Telangana Badminton Association. He has made a name for himself by gifting luxury cars to athletes like P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Deepa Karmakar.

In 2010, several members of the Indian national women’s hockey team wrote a letter to the Sports Ministry complaining against then head coach Maharaj Krishan Kaushik. Kaushik was fired but later bagged another position as a high-performance manager for the Central Zone hockey programme.

The following year, E. Thulasi, a boxer from Tamil Nadu alleged that the then Tamil Nadu Boxing Association General Secretary, A.K. Karunakaran, demanded she perform sexual favours in return for a position on the team. While Karunakaran was arrested, his arrest saw at least a dozen junior and senior boxers visit the Commissioner of Police’s office stating that the allegations were false.

In 2014, in preparation for the Asian Games, a young female gymnast alleged that her coach and a fellow male player had made disparaging remarks about her clothes during a training session at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, New Delhi. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) launched a probe but a “larger conspiracy” was alleged. Meanwhile, the accused coach and player flew with the team to the Asian Games.

In a landmark 2015 case, four Kerala rowing trainees at the SAI Vembanad centre, claiming harassment by seniors, entered into a ‘suicide pact’ resulting in the death of one girl.

Another reported incident in 2015 occurred at the SAI center located in the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack, Odisha where a 17-year-old girl accused her coach Susanta Ray of touching her private parts. A complaint was registered against the coach and a case was filed under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code and The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act. Ray was arrested. Thereafter a handful of athletes came out in support of the coach and subsequently the internal committee of SAI concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations.

In 2017, the Uttarakhand Minister of Sports, Arvind Pandey, dropped a bombshell by suggesting that he possessed a list of several names of harassers across different sporting associations in the state. He later softened his stance stating that he wouldn’t take action since the expose could “ruin victims’ marriage.”

Later, in December, a discus thrower - a minor at that - in Karnataka complained of molestation at her SAI centre and during a national meet. Her father registered a complaint after which the coach was promptly suspended, but not before the coach reportedly claimed, in his defence, that he had “only touched her during discus throw training.”

More recently, in March 2018, international para-swimmer and coach Prasanta Karmakar was suspended for three years after multiple complaints were made against him for recording videos of athletes during the 2017 National Para Swimming Championship in Jaipur. Thereafter, Karmakar has come out with strongly-worded denial of the charges claiming that it was an attempt to tarnish his image.

Another case this year saw five Indian women kabaddi players and a kabaddi coach lodging a complaint with Vijayawada police against the Andhra Pradesh Kabaddi Association State secretary V Veera Lankaiah accusing him of sexual harassment. Lankaiah surrendered and was immediately put into judicial custody.

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Hiding in the open: Could there be 10,000 survivors?

“If you want to coach, you need to be a womanizer or a drunkard.” – A national level coach

“I’m sure we have a huge list of survivors because girls give in to see their dreams coming true.” – A coach and former national women’s team player

There is little data available on the number of sexual harassment cases in Indian sport. In the one sport that we sampled, studied and reported on, conversations with experienced professionals active at the grassroots level across India allow us to conservatively conclude that there are at least four serious sexual offenders still actively involved in this one popular team sport.

Based on the assumption that one active offender harasses around 50 victims – a conservative estimate considering that Nassar was accused of harassing over 250 women – the figures indicate that there could be nearly 200 sexual offenders and 10,000 survivors across 53 major Indian sports.

Even as conservative estimates go when extrapolated from the information that is available, these are disturbing numbers.

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Definite patterns emerge

Sport in India continues to be male-dominated and the sex ratio, particularly in coaching and administration, is heavily skewed in favour of men, providing easy avenues for harassment. Perpetrators, many of whom take up administrative posts or coach national teams without having the necessary credentials, are usually habitual offenders. While, like in Kaushik’s case in women’s hockey or V. Chamundeshwarnath’s case in cricket, those accused continue to hold positions of power in sport.

However, while the majority of sexual harassment cases pertain to women survivors, it will be remiss to say that such instances do not occur with male athletes as well, especially minors.

Unnervingly, a number of reported cases involve survivors who were minors at the time of the incident, indicating their exceptional vulnerability and susceptibility. “Girls between the age group of 13–18 years are the most vulnerable,” said Jayavanti Shyam, a former national-level basketball player and coach during an interview with The News Minute in December 2017. “By the time they realise what is happening to them, it is too late.”

Residential government-run sports hostels are usually a nightmare for victims. “Most coaches in government-run academies are not at all professional,” Shyam continues. “They call the girls to their room under the pretext of discussing game strategy and misbehave with them. This happens in government run-academies specifically because the girls stay there for several years and these coaches have access to them throughout the day,” said Shyam. Typically, such centres are far away from the city and are poorly policed. Outsiders have easy access to most hostels and almost none have CCTV cameras.

Contrary to popular notions that only sportspersons in individual sports are susceptible to sexual harassment, sportspersons who are part of team sports suffer from this menace as well. The team selection process is dreaded; one which is often biased and rarely based on merit. The absence of clear selection criteria in most sports increases the chances of subjectivity and harassment. Often, financial compulsions tend to push female athletes to succumb to unwelcome sexual advances. Unlike male athletes in India, female sportspersons have fewer employment opportunities. Additionally, a sports career is time sensitive; with promotions being linked to the number of international appearances and medals, there is added pressure on athletes - especially female - to ensure they get selected to as many state and national teams before they start their families.

Harassment of young athletes is also rife at remote tournament venues and locations. This is especially true when athletes travel long distances by train to remote locations, when they practice in large empty stadia located on the outskirts of cities and during local tournaments that often don’t have bathrooms and proper changing room facilities.

Travelling to and from events across the country means that survivors are often forced to remain in close contact with their harassers and have no one to confide in. Female managers are not always hired nor present at regular training sessions; if they are, it is often only for the duration of a competitive tournament. This fact has been confirmed by first-hand research conducted by Nation of Sport where, in the sport that we studied, the senior women’s team from the state which Swati belonged to did not have a woman manager accompanying them to a key national-level championship. The reason cited at the time was that the girls were mature enough to take care of themselves.

Through the course of our research, we haven't come across a single team or sports hostel with an in-house mental health professional. Moreover, there are no workshops for women athletes that teach them how to handle such situations. This is especially problematic considering that the International Olympic Committee issued a Consensus Statement in 2007 citing research that “demonstrates that sexual harassment and abuse in sport seriously and negatively impact athletes’ physical and psychological health. They can damage performance and lead to athlete drop-out.”

There is also the tendency to blame the survivor instead of the authorities conducting proper investigations. An oft-used defence tactic by an accused perpetrator is that the allegations of sexual harassment are “politically motivated” and fabricated by disgruntled rival coaches or administrators. However, while such cases exist, these are exceptions that are often unreasonably exaggerated to evade and deny the very existence of sexual harassment in sports.

It does not help that in most cases of harassment, multiple agencies — event organizers, local police, relevant district, state and national associations, facility administrators (usually SAI), etc. — have to get involved. This slows the inquiry process to a crawl and significantly increases the risk of the survivors’ identity being leaked, making them vulnerable to further harassment.

“Basic laws exist, but it is enforcement that is the problem,” says Rahul Mehra, a leading sports lawyer and activist. “The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 mandating the constitution of sexual harassment committees needs to kick in – not just in sports but across all institutions. Additionally, when it comes to minors, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, 2012 is applicable apart from provisions in the Indian Penal Code.”

Mehra’s point about the absence of mandated sexual harassment committees has been separately corroborated by the news website Scroll.in. Scroll, at the time, reported that only 5 of the 12 National Sports Federations (NSFs) they contacted confirmed the existence of internal complaint committees to specifically investigate sexual harassment.

Often, adequate remedial action is taken only when multiple survivors join to fight their case publicly or when the family of the survivor shows unflinching support and persistence.

Shockingly, even when found guilty, the punishment is often a mere transfer to another posting. Rarely is an offender judged to be to guilty of a criminal offence and punished accordingly.

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Moving forward?

“I have been known to be very arrogant for everyone. I don't entertain them in any way. I’m blunt with my answers and I don't care how it will affect my career. I guess you send the vibe that you are not available and I have that behaviour,” reports a former player and coach (in the same sport that Swati played) on how she fends off harassers.

“Since she was 13 years old, my daughter has been traveling alone or with male coaches. She has clear instructions: If anything like this happens, do not accept it. Be bold and brave; just give it back to that person and return home. No compromise. If you don’t play anymore, no problem,” says the parent of a leading international athlete who plays the same sport as Swati.

Mehra reveals that “privately, 9 out of 10 women athletes will tell you that they have faced harassment at one time or the other. But speaking out publicly will damage their careers. Most complaints are nipped in the bud and rarely see the light of day,” highlighting that the legal system rarely aids survivors.

It is important to bring to light the stories of athletes like Swati. However, Nation of Sport also wanted to understand how these incidents can be avoided. What follows now is a summary of guidelines issued by the Supreme Court of India, recommendations by the International Olympic Committee and the UN, the directions amalgamated in the National Sports Development Code of India (2011) as well as suggestions from conversations with various stakeholders including current and former athletes, coaches, administrators, and professionals:

The National Sports Development Code of India, 2011, Annexure XVII, ‘Prevention of sexual harassment of women in sports’, states that NSFs must comply with the Vishaka guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. NSFs are directed to take 10 additional steps including the time-bound redressal of complaints, initiating criminal proceedings, non-victimization of the complainant, and extending support to the affected person even in cases of third-party harassment.

In 2017, former Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, Vijay Goel, during the occasion of International Women’s Day, announced the constitution of a high-level committee to resolve grievances and complaints of women sportspersons. As of today, however, there is no confirmation as to whether such a committee has actually been formed.

Athletes believe that a website, mobile app or dedicated helpline number to file complaints anonymously is a necessity. Alternatively, government and private-run hostels should make available a list of contacts for relevant NGOs that deal with sexual harassment since most athletes have no clue that such organizations exist.

It is important for federations and the Sports Ministry to formulate guidelines on how to deal with cases of harassment. Athletes, parents/guardians, coaches and administrators must also undergo mandatory training on these guidelines.

Rigorous background checks should be conducted on coaches appointed by schools and colleges to ensure proper credentials. As the Swati incident showed, it was the school that facilitated the initial entry of Ramesh into the formal coaching circuit.

Federations must only recognize tournaments that provide a safe environment for athletes including basic facilities such as separate locker rooms and functioning washrooms for girls/women.

Girls’ and women’s teams must appoint female managers as a prerequisite to participate. This is in line with the findings of the Consensus Statement adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 2007 that concluded that “members of the athlete’s entourage who are in positions of power and authority appear to be the primary perpetrators.”

CCTV cameras should be installed in hostels, training facilities and tournament venues. Access to these places must be restricted to accredited personnel only.

All district, state and national sports federations must be brought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. As things currently stand, only NSFs that receive an annual government grant of INR 10 lakh or more fall under the purview of the RTI Act.

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Death by a thousand cuts

Swati continues to battle her demons to this day. Shockingly, her parents still don’t know about her ordeal.

She has realized, however, that her love for the sport is bigger than her negative experiences. She is fighting to regain the level of skill she used to play at. Currently, she is enrolled in a local college and competes at nondescript state meets.

Safe in the knowledge that Swati has been silenced, Ramesh continues to operate at large. He holds a powerful administrative post as the secretary in a district association and is also the coach of a prominent girls’ school team in his state. As word about his behaviour spreads, those involved in the sport, both at the state and national levels, are well-aware of his predatory nature as well as the power he wields. And while there is an unspoken mission to stay away from him, there is also an uncomfortable conspiracy of silence.

There is hope that, like in the US, the #MeToo campaign in India will spread from the film industry to the sports world.

“Age fraud, doping and sexual harassment are the three biggest problems facing Indian sports today,” confirms Mehra. “In India, coaches are looked upon as ‘gurus’ and are held in high esteem. So, when the coaches themselves betray their fiduciary responsibility, then an athlete is shattered.”

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Hunting Grounds - Are Indian sports persons at the mercy of predators?

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