• Wednesday, October 04, 2023


Throwing medals in river: When India’s protesting wrestlers saw a historical connect to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, it is famously said, had thrown his Olympic gold medal won in the 1960 Olympics into the Ohio River to protest racist discrimination.

(L-R) Protesting Indian wrestlers in Haridwar in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images) and Muhammad Ali (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

When some of India’s top wrestlers, including those who have won medals at high stages such as the Olympic Games, announced that they would throw their hard-earned prizes into river Ganges in the holy city of Haridwar in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, a unique historical parallel was drawn between them and America’s legendary boxer Muhammad Ali who had done something similar in 1960.

Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville in Kentucky on January 17, 1942, and was of African American descent, took to boxing at a very young age. It is said that Ali was attracted to the sport after his bicycle got stolen and he told a policeman that he would “whup” the person who took it. He then excelled in the game and in the 1960 Rome Olympics, he won a gold medal. He was so proud with his achievement that he did not take off the medal for “48 hours”, according to himself.

India’s protesting wrestlers hold plan to throw medals in Ganges, give 5-day ultimatum for action against federation chief

But the joy was shortlived as Ali continued to have racist experience even after his big feat.

Ali wrote in his autobiography “The Greatest”, that he threw the medal into the Ohio River following a fight with a white motorcycle gang which had started after he and a friend were refused service at a restaurant in Louisville.

According to an Associated Press article, the story may be apocryphal, and Ali later told his friends he simply misplaced the medal. “Regardless, he had made his point,” the article said.

Ali was finally given a replica of the medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The Indian wrestlers, including the likes of Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia (both have won medals at Olympics) and Vinesh Phogat reached Haridwar to immerse their medals but intervention by a farmer leader and local people stopped them from doing it and they set a five-day ultimatum to the federal government to take action against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, chief of the Wrestling Federation of India, who have been accused of sexually harassing female wrestlers, including a minor. He is also a parliamentarian from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

“It seems that these medals decorated around our necks have no meaning anymore,” read a statement in Hindi which was tweeted out by top athletes. “The police and the system are treating us as criminals while the harasser openly attacks us in public meetings,” it added.

The wrestlers’ protest took an ugly turn on Sunday (28) when they were detained by the Delhi Police personnel while they were trying to conduct a peaceful march towards India’s new parliament building, located just a few kilometres from their protest site, while prime minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating it.

The police also filed a case of rioting against them and released them later.

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