DAYS AFTER a top Indian woman cyclist levelled serious charges of sexual harassment against national coach, leading to his dismissal, a former star has come forward to complain that she was “slapped” twice, “ridiculed” and “harassed” for years by the ex-coach and the team’s assistant assistant.
Andaman’s Deborah Herold, the current national champion and international gold medallist, toldin an interview that she was removed from the national team because Sharma’s assistant Gautamani Devi “thought” she was in a relationship with another female cyclist.
It’s not just Herold who has come up with fresh allegations against Sharma.
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Two current national team members told The Indian Express that they have communicated to the Sports Authority of India’s Internal Complaints Committee, which is hearing the charges of sexual harassment against Sharma, that he and Devi “threatened and harassed” them “constantly for years”, affecting their performance.
Asked about the allegations, Devi told The Indian Express that she had only done whatever the Cycling Federation of India (CFI) had directed her to do. The CFI said Herold had never raised any allegation against Sharma and Devi earlier, and that the federation acts “in accordance with its constitution and law of the land”. Sharma did not respond to requests from The Indian Express seeking comment.
Herold, who has been a part of the India set-up since 2012 and trained under Sharma since 2014, said she has been kept out of the team since 2018 despite being the country’s fastest cyclist in the 200m sprint and 500m time trial events at the national championships since 2019.
“She (Devi) thought I was in a relationship with another female cyclist, and harassed me a lot. She taunted, ignored and isolated me from the rest of the cyclists. Eventually, I was removed from the national camp. In truth, there was nothing like it… we are just good friends,” she said.
The 27-year-old said she was “shocked” to hear about the incidents described in the complaint made to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) by a top cyclist who alleged that Sharma forced her to stay in his room, offered her a “post-training massage”, “forcefully” tried to pull her towards him, and asked her to “sleep with him” during a camp in Slovenia in May.
Herold said the “toxic atmosphere” in the team under Sharma “did not allow our cyclists to perform to their potential”.
According to Herold, she was singled out almost every day and was asked to stay away from other cyclists. “The assistant coach and the chief coach harassed us mentally. It affected me so much that I started losing weight because I couldn’t eat properly… I was pulled up if I spoke with any teammate, male or female. If I bumped into someone in the dining room, I would be shouted at. It reached a stage where, on some days, I started eating (alone) in my hostel room. I was singled out and harassed for no fault of mine,” she said.
In the initial years of Sharma’s stint as coach, Herold said, she had no problem. According to her, the first incident took place in 2015, when Sharma allegedly “slapped” her. “The AC in my (hostel) room was not working. So, I went to the room of one of the boys from Andaman on the floor above mine. Sir found out and slapped me — twice. I didn’t think about it much back then and I do not think a lot about it now. Whatever happened, happened,” she said.
The mood in the team, Herold claimed, deteriorated further after the “arrival of Gautamani”.
She said the assistant coach “misunderstood” her friendship with another cyclist from Andaman. “But there was nothing like that. She was also from Andaman so we naturally bonded well. I shared my experiences with her, trained together, and dreamt of winning medals for India and hopefully, competing at the Olympics. Over a period of time, our friendship became stronger. But all this while, ma’am was thinking at a different angle about us,” she said.
According to Herold, Devi “taunted” them and passed “snide remarks”, and even Sharma started “harassing me mentally”. The coaches, she alleged, used “rude” and “discouraging language” while training, accused her of “exaggerating injuries” and “made personal comments” on the friendship.
“We did not pay attention to anything they said because we hadn’t done anything. Who were they to judge and comment on our personal lives based on their perceptions?” Herold said.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Devi did not deny Herold’s allegations. “I did what the federation told me to do. These are all old issues that are resurfacing now, I was acting in the best interest of the country,” she said.
Asked about Herold’s allegation that she was removed from the team because of a misunderstanding over her friendship with another cyclist, Devi said: “This wasn’t in my hands. Who am I? Just a coach who works under the federation…Nothing is in my hands. I do what the federation tells me.”
Asked to identify the CFI official who had directed her in this instance, Devi said: “These are all old issues, who said what…No rider should blame anyone like this. An athlete likes a coach if we agree with them. The moment we scold them, we become their enemies. That’s why Indian athletes do not succeed. Only those who listen to the coach win medals at the Olympics.”
CFI secretary-general Maninder Pal Singh said: “Deborah Herold never informed nor did she make any complaint to the federation against R K Sharma or Gautamani Devi, as alleged by her. The selection of the team is not in the hands of any individual, it is completely performance-based and done by the selection committee through an open selection trial held in a fair and transparent manner. Deborah never raised the issue with the federation, which she is alleging now.”
Asked about Devi’s response, Singh said: “The federation is not aware of what Gautamani Devi has informed you, however, you are informed that affairs of the federation are run in accordance with its constitution and law of the land.”
“Angered” and “frustrated” that her performances were getting affected, Herold discontinued training under Sharma — “who had stopped talking to me” — in 2018 and switched from sprint to endurance events to revive her career. From that year on, she was not selected for India. “I hope that after this unfortunate incident involving another young cyclist, there will be a change in culture.”