India’s national cycling coach RK Sharma is in more trouble after former star Deborah Herold has come forward to reveal that she was slapped twice, ridiculed and harassed for years by the ex-coach and the team’s assistant.
The charges against Sharma come after a female cyclist apprised the Sports Authority of India (SAI) of inappropriate behaviour by coach during her stay in Slovenia and was so terrified that she feared for her life.
Herold said she was shocked to hear about the incidents described in the complaint made to the SAI.
Andaman’s Herold, the current national champion and international gold medallist, told The Indian Express in 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.
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.
Herold said 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.
Herold revealed in the initial years of Sharma’s stint as coach, 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”.
Blame on assistant coach too
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.
It’s not just Herold. Two current national team members told The Indian Express that they have communicated to the SAI’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.
When asked about the allegations, Devi said 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”.
“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,” Devi 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 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.”
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.”