Champions of a greater game: Vinesh, Bajrang, Sakshi risk it all for justice

Bajrang Punia (L), Vinesh Phogat (C), Sakshi Malik (R) have led the wrestlers' protests against the WFI. Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It took one week and a petition filed in the Supreme Court for some of India's most celebrated athletes - Olympic and multiple World Championship medallists among them - to get the Delhi Police to agree to investigate their formal complaint of sexual harassment against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. It's a damning indictment of the system, and the mind boggles at what less influential people have to go through.

There is no praise high enough for the wrestlers, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, who last Sunday began their second protest stint on the pavement of Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

They have put their careers on the line at the most inopportune moment: this is the year of the Asian Games, the World Championships and the qualifying process for next year's Olympic Games in Paris. Their training and competition schedules have been severely disrupted and one can only guess the toll it will take on them; a rough estimate for these top-level athletes is roughly four to five days of recovery time needed for every day spent on the pavement.

But the physical aspect - tough though it is with the onset of a Delhi summer, with heat, mosquitoes, an irregular diet and the 24x7 glare of cameras and the public eye - might even pale in comparison to the other obstacles they face.

Just to put it in perspective:

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is a six-time Member of Parliament. He belongs to the BJP, the ruling party in the central government. He is based in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, where the federation frequently holds training camps and competitions. There is enough video evidence on the internet of the sheer power he wields.

The Delhi Police, which is to investigate charges against him, comes directly under the BJP government led by Narendra Modi (it answers to the home minister, Amit Shah).

The sports minister is Anurag Thakur, a member of the ruling BJP (and a former president of the BCCI). While Thakur's ministry has no official role in the administration of wrestling, its various agencies like the Sports Authority of India directly control athletes' funding (including their support structure). One of Thakur's decisions when the protests first broke out in January was to set up an Oversight Committee to investigate all the allegations against Singh and run the WFI.

That committee was headed by MC Mary Kom, one of India's greatest ever athletes - and also, from 2016-22, an MP nominated by the BJP.

The committee included Yogeshwar Dutt, like Mary Kom an Olympic medallist - but also a known sympathiser of the BJP who in the early days of the protest had tweeted his support of WFI president Singh.

There is no reason to believe that the police, the sports ministry, the committees, will not treat the wrestlers fairly; this is just to point out the political connections between those mandated to sort out various aspects of this entire issue.

And that's just the tangible part of what the wrestlers have had to deal with. The intangible - so real, though, you can almost feel it - is the power structure within Indian sport.

Wrestlers vs WFI: Timeline of protest from pavement sit-in to court petition

Outside of top-level cricket, you can't make a living being an athlete in India. How do you survive? Depending on the level of your proficiency, through grants, stipends and scholarships. Part of it comes from the government, as mentioned earlier. Part of it will come from your specific sporting federation - which, in many cases and for as long as anyone cares to remember, are controlled by politicians. Usually from the ruling party, as with the Wrestling Federation of India, but party affiliations don't matter beyond a point.

And it isn't funding or finances alone. Which tournament you participate in, where you train and who you train with, how you travel from A to B, your visas and other enabling documents; it all depends on clearances by a bureaucrat in a ministry under a politician. There is a trip wire every step of your way.

So an athlete's career path is essentially entirely dependent on those in power. However successful the athlete, there are enough ways to bring them in line.

Which makes the protest at Jantar Mantar even more laudable. And the bravery of victims - one of them a minor - of alleged sexual assault in pursuing their complaints against the most powerful man in their sporting universe is staggering.

"Winning this is no less than a medal" - Vinesh Phogat on taking on the system

Whatever happens in the police investigation, whatever happens in the findings of the various committees that have been set up to look into this sorry mess, one thing is clear: These wrestlers, those who have been the public face and those who have filed the complaint, have gone beyond the realm of sporting heroism. They have risked everything - their future careers, their livelihoods, their wellbeing - for what they feel is right. In that, they are champions of a greater game.