After ‘Very Heartbreaking’ Experience, Likith Prema Speaks Up About Timing Manipulation; Uzbekistan Refutes Allegations

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From a video by Likith Prema; Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Youtube

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After ‘Very Heartbreaking’ Experience, Likith Prema Speaks Up About Timing Manipulation

Likith Prema’s swimming career has generally occurred far from the spotlight.

The Indian swimmer started when he was four. A native of Bangalore, he trains alone, at different pools around the metropolis whenever he can get time in the water. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down India for much of the last year, that’s become an increasingly difficult proposition, driving some swimmers to the brink of retirement. Now that the country is being ravaged by the coronavirus, with more than 16 million total cases and a terrifying rash of new infections that have exceeded 300,000 per day over the last week, it’s not getting easier.

But the 22-year-old breaststroker’s dream is to represent his nation in the Olympics. No Indian man has ever attained an Olympic A cut; the first one to do so will mark a watershed for the subcontinent.

All that history factored into Prema’s decision to set up his phone and edit together a video showing what he alleges is timing fraud at the Uzbekistan Open last week. For all those hours compounding into months and years that Prema has spent staring at the black line, toiling to trim fractions of a second off his times, seeing whole seconds undeservedly lopped off swimmers’ times by meet administrators was an affront that he couldn’t let stand.

“I protested against it because I love the sport,” Prema told Swimming World via phone this week. “This is what I’ve been doing for the last 18 years. I train by myself. I train alone. Every day I have to look for pool space to train in. I really love the sport and I want to do something for the sport.

“When I saw this happening, it was very, very frustrating for me and very heartbreaking. What am I training for? What am I working for? If people are going to the Olympics so easy, why am I even training for this and working so hard?”

Prema alleges irregularities in several events in which Uzbek swimmers were given bogus times to hit Olympic A or B cuts. To grease the wheels, he said that meet officials offered the same treatment to the large delegation from India.

Prema protested by refusing to leave the blocks after the 200 breaststroke. When confronted by officials afterward, he alleges that they attempted to bribe him to keep quiet and tried to coerce him into certifying that he couldn’t hear or react to the starting gun because of hearing or mental difficulties.

Despite his calm and dispassionate delivery in the video, Prema was emotional at the event. He was with coaches on the first day when he said meet officials attempted to manipulate Indian butterflier Sajan Prakash’s time. Prakash, a 2016 Olympian, and his coaches rejected the offer, which Prema said was to change a 2:03 in prelims of the 200 fly to a 1:55, a brazen improvement. It also would’ve given Prakash the first Indian Olympic A cut, which he hadn’t worked for.

“It came as a shock to us when we saw Sajan’s 1:55,” Prema said. “I and the other coaches were the first ones to get it. Sajan didn’t know his time at all. Sajan had no clue what was happening. But when he got to know, he was not up for it. So he and his coach protested, said you should change it back to 2:03, which is what he swam (in prelims).”

Calls to Prakash seeking comment were not returned. A source close to the situation indicated that FINA is investigating the claims, however FINA has not returned messages seeking to confirm that.

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Screen shot from Aleksey Taransenko’s Instagram, Wednesday, April 21

One of the other swimmers alleged to have benefited from timing cuts, Aleksey Tarasenko, posted a cryptic message to Instagram on Wednesday, after Prema’s video went live, disavowing what he called a “rotten” system that has left his “disgusted.” Prema highlighted the Olympic A cut of 48.55 that Tarasenko was said to have produced in prelims as one of the manipulated times, and Tarasenko’s message would seem to reinforce Prema’s accusation that the athletes, both Indian and Uzbek, did not ask for their time to be improved.

When confronted with the allegations made by Prema, the Uzbekistan Swimming Federation sent a statement to Swimming World refuting his claims:

At the same time, we are very saddened and disappointed about the latest news events taking place around and in connection with the past tournaments, we are also very outraged by the statements of Likith Prema (a swimmer from India), which are not supported by any facts and evidence and sound like empty accusations against us!

Since its inception, our Federation has always adhered to and adheres to the principle of fair sports and has always taken care of the health of its athletes.

We have carefully studied all the accusations made by Likith Prema and during these few days, we have conducted an investigation, based on the results of which we are informing you of the following.

According to the final results of the competition, all the timing protocols of the competition were provided every day to all teams, including foreign delegations from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, India, and none of the official representatives of these teams had any protests or complaints about them. None of the participating teams filed a protest to the Chief Referee!

The federation acknowledged “some glitches in the time counting software,” but said they were immediately fixed. They also called accusations about intimidation and bribery as, “complete slander and untruth” and refuted any notion that the federation is under pressure to deliver Olympic qualifying cuts, as Prema said he was told.

The statement continues:

We consider all statements of Likith Prema to be unfounded and unsubstantiated, and we regard his such act as blackmail of the Organizing Committee and revenge for its sports results!

We assure you that all the participants in the competition used their sports experience and skills, and achieved their best sports results in a hard and fair fight! Otherwise, the representatives of the participating teams would have protested to the Chief Referee on the same day!

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Likith Prema (yellow cap) remains on the block in the 200 breaststroke at the Uzbekistan Open to protest what he believes was manipulated times; Photo Courtesy: Screenshot from Youtube

Prema has not had much backing from his federation. In comments to Sports Star, Monal Chokshi, the secretary of the Swimming Federation of India, said that timing irregularities were fixed and instead chose to comment on the way in which Prema protested rather than what he was protesting about.

“He [Likith] cannot protest the way he did,” Chokshi said. “Heats timings were wrong and for even our swimmers they posted faster times! Everything was corrected.”

Prema is in a precarious position. A four-time South Asian Games gold medalist, Prema holds the Indian records in all three short-course events. His best time of 1:02.02 is within three tenths of the Olympic B cut in the 100 breast. When it comes to selection to major meets, his federation’s support is a necessity. With all that on the line, it should say something about how compelled he was to speak up, and how blatant he felt the improprieties were the he wouldn’t stay silent.

“It’s just fair,” Prema said. “You go to the Olympics with a good mindset, not by manipulating the times. … We just wanted the right thing to happen.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Swammer

    What a hell did Uzb Federation say?! Do they think we are all idiots?!?!?!