Days after national cycling coach RK Sharma was dismissed over serious allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by an athlete, another cyclist has come forward with a complaint of inappropriate behaviour against him and his assistant.
The athlete said that the coach and his assistant slapped, ridiculed, and harassed her for years, according to a report in The Indian Express.
Deborah Herold, the current national cycling champion and a tsunami survivor, said she was removed from the national team because Sharma's assistant Gautamani Devi "thought" she was in a relationship with another female cyclist.
Two other cyclists from the national team have also reportedly complained to the Sports Authority of India's (SAI) Internal Complaints Committee that Sharma and his assistant had threatened and harassed them, adversely impacting their performances.
Deborah Herold's Complaint
Deborah Herold had been a part of the Indian team since 2012 and had trained with Sharma since 2014. However, she has been kept out of the team since 2018 though she is India's fastest cyclist in the 200 m sprint and the 500 m time trial events.
"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."Deborah Herold, Cyclist
Herold said she was shocked to hear about the complaints made against Sharma to the SAI and said that the toxic atmosphere under the coach did not allow the cyclists to perform to their full potential.
She further said she was singled out quite regularly. "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 to 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.
The cyclist from Andaman went on to narrate how the coach slapped her for the first time in 2015 because she went to another athlete's room as the AC in hers was not working.
"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.
'Misunderstood My Friendship With Another Cyclist'
According to Herold, Devi, the assistant coach, misunderstood her friendship with another cyclist, and often taunted her and made snide remarks. She even accused Herold of "exaggerating injuries."
"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 (Devi) was thinking at a different angle about us," she said.
"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.
'Was Acting in the Best Interest of the Country'
When Devi was contacted and asked about the allegations, she said that he was just doing what the federation had asked him to do. Devi maintained the same stance about doing what was asked when probed about the "misunderstanding of a relationship."
"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. "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."
When asked about who in the Cycling Federation of India had directed her, 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 RK 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."
When 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."