Just days before the Indian cycling team left to Slovenia for a preparatory camp, a top cyclist allegedly received a call from coach Rajendra Kumar Sharma, informing her that "she will be sharing a room with him" during the tour. The issue was reportedly resolved on 16 May, after a support staff brought it to the notice of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) once the team had landed in Slovenia. However, it did not stop there.
Sharma allegedly forced himself into the room of the cyclist, offering her "post-training" massage, and stating that he "wants her to be his wife," the cyclist said, in her complaint emailed to SAI.
He also allegedly "forcefully" pulled her towards him, asking her to "sleep with him," the complainant added in her email, reported The Indian Express.
The incident marks a black day for the sport. The team not just lost out on international training, with everyone directed to return to India amid the allegations, it also raises questions over the safety of a number of women athletes trained under him in the last eight years.
Days after, more than 2 complaints about inappropriate behaviour, surfaced against RK Sharma and his assistant Gautamani Devi. The athletes alleged that the misbehaviour and toxic atmosphere affected their performances too.
From IAF Employee to Indian Cycling Coach
A former Indian Air Force (IAF) employee, Sharma completed close to 30 years in service before he decided to change his career path. He self-funded his way through a coaching course in Switzerland, after resigning from the IAF.
On returning to India, he was appointed the national team's coach – based on recommendation from the the Cycling Federation of India (CFI).
On 7 June, after the allegations became public, the CFI released a statement expressing "full support" to the survivor.
Sharma's Ties With Cycling Federation
According to ESPN, Sharma's association with cycling had begun by accident in 1985, soon after he joined the Air Force. He was a part of the Services cycling team – for which he won a few medals before retiring from the game in 1998.
Years later, when he was posted in Delhi in 2006, he reportedly re-engaged with the sport.
"During that time, I started volunteering over the weekend with the local cycling federation. Around that time there were a lot of cycling road races that were being conducted and I'd mostly referee there," he told ESPN.
According to ESPN, Sharma reportedly faced backlash and resistance during 2014-15 – with many players choosing to return home due to him changing their routines, and his 'aggressive approach.' There was also a controversy when he referred to some players and said 'remove the kachra (rubbish)' from the camp.
"There were cyclists who had been in the camp for four or five years without doing anything. They had no plans or desire to achieve anything at an international level. I'd spent enough time with them to know their motivation and ambition," he told ESPN in an interview in 2020.
"You can't tell him to curb his aggressive approach," CFI Chairperson Omkar Singh told ESPN in 2020, adding why the CFI decided to back the coach at that point. "That is paying results. I want results. I don't see any reason to tell him don't do this or that. He has to listen to us on policy matters, but when it comes to coaching decisions, it is entirely his call. No doubt about it."
Under him, the Indian cyclists team have won the gold medal in the Team Sprint event at World Junior Track Cycling Championships held in Frankfurt, beating Australia in 2019. This remains the team's biggest victory till date.
'Threatened To End Her Career'
Sharma also allegedly invited the cyclist to his room on 19 May for a “post-training massage as he assumed that my body would be tight post-training.” She added that she ignored his invitation.
When she repeatedly resisted his advances, Sharma allegedly threatened to destroy her career, and making sure "she would sell vegetables on the road."
In the complaint, the cyclist said that when she decided to quit camp in Slovenia, Sharma called her parents and asked them to "get her married."
(With inputs from ESPN.)