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Vinesh Phogat at Jantar Mantar: India wrestlers risk Olympic dream for '#MeToo' protest.

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For Vinesh Phogat, the year 2023 was crucial in every sense.

With just three months left for the World Championships and the Asian Games, the Indian wrestler would have been at the peak of her training regime right now. She calls it the "ultimate level", the kind of training where the body begins to move automatically and you know in your bones what you have to do.

A two-time medal winner at the World Championships, this was Phogat's chance to score a third.

But instead of mentally and physically preparing at a training camp, the wrestler has been living on a dusty pavement in India's capital Delhi - where temperatures have crossed 42C - with "very little sleep" and subjected to "constant noise" for the past month.

Phogat is among a group of India's most accomplished wrestlers who have been protesting after they accused their federation's top official of sexual harassment and abuse of female wrestlers.

The wrestlers, including Olympic medallists, are demanding the resignation and arrest of the federation's president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Mr Singh, who has been questioned by the Delhi Police, has denied the allegations and called the protests politically motivated.

The protests - Tuesday marks a month since they began - jeopardise the country's prospects of winning a wrestling medal in the upcoming championships, leaving the athletes distraught and broken.

They may also end India's dreams of another Olympics wrestling medal next year. The country has won seven Olympic medals in wrestling so far, six of these since 2008.

"The entire country has pinned its hopes on us to get another medal - and we really want to - but here we are, sitting for 30 days with no resolution," says wrestler Bajrang Punia, who won a bronze at the 2020 Olympics.

Every year, the International Olympic Committee earmarks a few events as qualification events for the games. For wrestling, the World Championship in September is that event, essentially making it a gateway for the Olympics, says Rudraneil Sengupta, author of Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling Landscape.

He adds that a world championship or a national game are also important in their own right - not just as qualifiers - as they are big events for any sport and player.

The athletes say they are continuing their training - which began in December - at the protest site but experts worry that this might not be enough.

"Wrestling is an extremely physically demanding sport. You have to be in extreme condition to be at the best level, and that requires you to be constantly in practice," Mr Sengupta says.

He adds that without the necessary conditioning, a player is likely to lose in the first 30 seconds, "no matter what their skills are".

Punia says that they have already missed out on some of the major tournaments, including an Asian ranking series, this year. "People say we are protesting for personal gains. But not getting to compete is the worst thing that could happen to a player."


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