Sportspersons and crime

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Satya Prakash, May 31, 2021: The Times of India

Sportsmen taking to crime
From: Satya Prakash, May 31, 2021: The Times of India

Two Olympic medals, three Commonwealth golds, a Padma Shri, a Khel Ratna, an Arjuna plus numerous awards… Sushil Kumar had the wrestling fraternity eating out of his hand. Money, fame, fan following, Sushil Kumar had it all.

Cut to last week. Sushil Kumar, face covered with a towel, was paraded before the media by Delhi Police as an ordinary criminal. Which the champion wrestler has become. After being on the run for nearly two weeks Sushil Kumar was nabbed by Delhi Police on May 23. He is accused of assaulting an upcoming 23-year-old wrestler who later died at a Delhi hospital; and if reports are to be believed, the former Olympian also got the whole assault filmed just to spread fear in the national capital's wrestling circuit.

Sushil Kumar was arrested by Delhi police for a wrestler's murder after being on the run for nearly 3 weeks

Sushil Kumar is not the first athlete to take to a life of crime. Think Prashant Bishnoi, Deepak Pahal, Harjinder Singh, Sombir Gulia, Anil Pehalwan, Jaipal Singh Bhullar…

The list may not be very long but it has enough big names to merit the question why champion sportsmen take to crime.

Author and mind trainer Austin Coutinho attributes frustration and insecurity arising out of failure to perform as key reasons.

"What leads to the crime is mainly frustration. In sports, when you are aiming for something and you don't reach there, it's very, very frustrating and that is the reason why many sportsmen go into crime," says Countinho.

He said that in a country like India, sports is the only means of livelihood for most athletes and that's the only qualification they have. Sometimes these athletes reach a stage where they realise that they are not good enough; at that point many take that existential step.

Junior Asian Boxing Championship (2006) Vietnam gold medalist Akshay Kumar from Haryana echoes similar views.

"Lack of opportunities and failure to perform on the big stages lead to frustration and disappointment among athletes and drive them to take the wrong path. A sportsman has a very short shelf life. An athlete works very hard throughout the year for big tournaments but when they are unable to qualify or perform they lump into depression," Akshay Kumar says.

Channelling the energy

India's first professional boxer and the youngest Arjuna awardee in 1991, Dharmendra Singh Yadav feels that sometimes emotional outbursts too could lead athletes to take bad wrong decisions in their personal lives.

"Sportsmen, especially those from contact sports, are fearless by nature, but they are emotional too and this is the reason why they get easily carried away by emotions. This weakness is also very easily exploited by politicians during elections and criminals," says Yadav who is now the coach of the Indian elite (men) boxing team.

The energy and enthusiasm of a sportsperson needs to be guided towards a constructive path, said senior wrestling coach and a Dronacharya awardee, Mahavir Prasad.

"If a sportsperson gets proper guidance and mentoring, he goes on to win medals for the country whereas if he falls into wrong company then it becomes an issue. Lack of proper guidance from family and mentors is to be blamed for sportsmen taking crime," says Prasad. The transformation of Harjinder Singh of Muktsar in Punjab, a national-level discus thrower at the inter-state school games to a dreaded criminal, Vicky Gounder, is a perfect example of how wrong company can ruin an upcoming talent.

Hoping to make him a good sportsman, Gounder's family sent him to Government Sports College in Jalandhar in 2004. But thanks to the bad company there, Gounder diverted towards the world of crime. In 2016, he masterminded the infamous Nabha jailbreak, helping two terrorists and many other gangsters escape from the prison. He was killed in an encounter by Punjab Police on January 26, 2018.

Lure of lucre

According to Gayatree Joshi, who uses body movement therapy to help players rejuvenate and improve, integrating a mental health care component in training and development of players can create a safe space for their holistic development.

"Each sports person who commits a crime has his own reasons for it. There are several factors that lead to criminal behaviour in them that may include depression, health issues, substance abuse and pressure in career. These factors result in extreme responses that could make a sportsperson violent and aggressive. Sometimes failures lead to intense emotions," says Joshi.

Filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia, who spent months researching the life of Paan Singh Tomar and circumstances that forced the celebrated athlete to become a dreaded outlaw, says that apart from injustice and frustration, greed and easy money are also big factors why athletes choose the wrong path.

"Circumstances and time were completely different during Paan Singh Tomar's era [1960s and ’70s]. He had to pick up a gun after being harassed by his more powerful relatives. Police were unresponsive. But now the situation is completely different. I think one of the reasons why they [sportsmen] get into world crime is money and greed," says Dhulia. In the case of shooter Prashant Bishnoi and Haryana’s wrestler Rakesh Malik alias Mokhriya, what Dhulia says seems opposite.

Bishnoi, a national-level shooter who had been running an international arms and wildlife parts smuggling operation, died in a road accident in April this year near Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.

Forty-five-year-old Bishnoi was arrested in 2017 by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and Meerut forest department. A raid at his house unearthed 44 firearms, 50,000 cartridges, 117 kg of animal meat, and deer and blackbuck skins.

Bishnoi confessed to the police that using his vocation as a professional shooter he smuggled guns into the country.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mokhriya had a bright career as a wrestler after winning a gold in an inter-state tournament and a bronze at a national-level dangal in Delhi in 2003. He had to give up sports at an early age due to health issues. He was arrested by the Rohtak police for murdering a liquor contractor in 2017.

Parveen Rana, a silver medalist in 2019 Asian Wrestling Championship in Xian, China said that personal and family reasons are big factors that force an athlete to take the wrong path.

"Aspects such as rivalry, and family issues are the big factors. But it is incorrect to say that all wrestlers are goondas, there is a wrong perception that only wrestlers become criminals. Even a common man can become a criminal due to circumstance," says Rana.

Arjuna awardee and a bronze medal winner at the Victoria (Canada) Commonwealth Games wrestler Kripa Shankar Bishnoi thinks lack of employment opportunities force some athletes to take to crime. Talking to Hindustan Times Bishnoi said that upcoming athletes want to represent the country; and if they fail they look to get a government job. And if they do not manage to land a secure government job then the lure of easy money draws a number of sportsmen to crime.

No easy solutions

Gayatree Joshi, the sports therapist feels that integrating a mental health care component in training and development of sportsmen would help in their holistic development. A mental health programme which includes counselling, psychotherapy, arts- based therapy and body movement therapy can be useful in reducing stress and frustration among athletes, she says.

According to sports journalist Gaurav Gupta, character building and moral values should be an integral part of the grooming of athletes from a young age.

"Apart from focusing on their game, the federations and training institutes should also see that imbibing moral values and discipline in athletes is also an integral part of their grooming," he says. There are no simple answers. Sushil Kumar had everything that an athlete dreams of – professional success and respect, idolising fans, money and a happy family life. But he was part of a gang and beat a young man to death.

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