Panghal seeks new start for scandal-hit Indian wrestling at Asiad
Indian wrestler Antim Panghal begins her campaign for a medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou this week hoping it will mark a fresh start for a sport mired in a sexual harassment scandal back home.
Three top wrestlers accused Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual misconduct in January and launched protests demanding his resignation
Images of star athletes being detained as they tried to march to parliament in May went viral on social media.
The wrestling begins in Hangzhou on Wednesday with two-time under-20 world champion Panghal among the favourites.
"I hope to put the controversies behind me and win a gold for my country," the 19-year-old told AFP before leaving for Hangzhou.
Two weeks ago she beat the world champion and a two-time European champion on her way to bronze at the World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade.
"I am filled with new energy," said Panghal, who competes in the 53kg freestyle category on Thursday at the Lin'an Sports Culture and Exhibition Centre.
Wrestling is hugely popular in rural northern India and the country has historically performed well in the sport at the Asian Games, bagging 59 medals, 11 of them gold.
The 66-year-old Singh, who is also a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling right-wing party, has been charged with sexual harassment and stalking.
Singh, who denies all charges and has been released on bail, claims he is a victim of a conspiracy to force him out of parliament. He faces up to five years in jail if found guilty.
Panghal, the two-time Under-20 world champion, did not take part in the protests but said the demonstrations had affected the "morale of all up and coming athletes".
Among the three prominent wrestlers who led the protest against Singh, only Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia will be in Hangzhou.
Sakshi Malik, also an Olympic medallist, skipped the trials for the Games, while Vinesh Phogat opted out due to a knee injury.
Phogat won gold in the women's 50kg freestyle at the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018.
Ina separate scandal, the WFI was suspended in August by United World Wrestling, the global governing body, for not holding its elections in time.
The suspension means Indian wrestlers have to compete as neutral athletes in events organised by the UWW and not under the Indian flag, something that upset Panghal at the recent World Wrestling Championships.
"I won a bronze at the World Championship, but I was heartbroken because I could not even wear the India jersey," said Panghal, from Hisar in India's northern state of Haryana.
"I had to wear the costume given by UWW. It hurt a lot that I could not represent India."
At the Asian Games, Panghal and other Hangzhou-bound Indian wrestlers will be allowed to compete under the Indian flag as it is a continental multi-sport event.
"I am really excited about winning a gold medal for my country and to hear the national anthem play out," she said.
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