Indian wrestlers at Tokyo Olympics: A bittersweet experience

Ravi Kumar Dahiya provided the country its second silver medal from wrestling while Bajrang Punia earned the fifth bronze to take India’s overall medal count from the sport to seven, even as the biggest women’s squad that outnumbered the male wrestlers let down in a big way.

Creditable show: India’s Ravi Kumar Dahiya, poses with his silver medal. Ravi was capable of winning a gold medal but managed a silver after going down 7-4 to double World champion and top seed Zaur Uguev of Russia in the men’s freestyle 57kg category title clash.   -  AFP

After Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt in London 2012, two more Chhatrasal Stadium products — Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Bajrang Punia — picked up a silver and a bronze respectively in the Olympics as wrestling made the most substantial contribution to the country’s tally of seven medals at the Tokyo Games.

Ravi provided the country its second silver medal from wrestling while Bajrang earned the fifth bronze to take India’s overall medal count from the sport to seven.

The Tokyo experience was bittersweet for the Indian wrestling contingent.

The wrestlers equalled the London Games tally and maintained the sport’s continued offering of medals since Beijing 2008.

However, the people running the sport in the country were disheartened as the performance was below their expectations.

It’s a fact that the biggest women’s squad that outnumbered the male wrestlers let down in a big way.

World No. 1 Vinesh Phogat’s exit in the women’s 53kg quarterfinals following her loss to Belarusian Vanesa Kaladzinskaya ‘by fall’ was a huge shock not only for the wrestling fraternity but also for the Indian contingent as a whole.

READ: Vinesh Phogat sends apology to WFI

Vinesh had beaten seasoned campaigner World and Olympic medallist Sofia Mattsson of Sweden 7-1 in the first round to reach the quarterfinals.

Of the inexperienced trio, Sonam Malik (62kg) and Seema Bisla (50kg) were ousted in the first round whereas Anshu Malik (57kg) gave some fight before crashing out in the repechage.

Shocker: World No. 1 Vinesh Phogat’s exit in the women’s 53kg quarterfinals following her loss to Belarusian Vanesa Kaladzinskaya ‘by fall’ was a huge shock not only for the wrestling fraternity but also for the Indian contingent as a whole.   -  AFP

 

Sonam and Seema came up short against Bolortuya Khurelkhuugiin (2-2) of Mongolia and Sarra Hamdi (3-1) of Tunisia respectively. Anshu, who lost to Iryna Kurachkina (8-2) of Belarus in the first round, was handed a defeat by Russian Valeria Koblova (5-1) in repechage.

Ravi was capable of winning a gold medal but managed a silver after going down 7-4 to double World champion and top seed Zaur Uguev of Russia in the men’s freestyle 57kg category title clash.

Coach Jagmender Singh’s handling of the affairs was baffling as he did not challenge the referee’s decisions when Ravi stood to gain clear points at least on two occasions. Ravi’s personal coach Kamal Malikov was not present on the mat side.

Ravi had beaten Pan American silver medallist Colombian Oscar Tigreros 13-2, Bulgarian Individual World Cup bronze medallist Georgi Vangelov 14-4 and double Worlds medallist Kazakh Nurislam Sanayev ‘by fall’ to become the second Indian wrestler after Sushil Kumar to make it to the final in an Olympic Games.

In men’s 86kg, Deepak Punia, who lost his bronze medal match to San Marino’s Miles Amine, could have been guided well. He let the crucial match slip away from his grasp in the last few seconds. Again, his personal coach Murad Gaidarov was not present on the mat side.

Deepak got the better of Ekerekeme Agiomor 12-1 of Nigeria and Lin Zushen 6-3 of China before losing to eventual champion David Taylor 10-0 in the semifinals. In the bronze medal contest, he lost 4-2 after leading 2-1.

Appointment of the coaches who don’t work with the wrestlers on a regular basis was definitely a glaring issue in this Olympics. The problem was also seen in the case of the first-timers in the women’s section as they trained elsewhere most of the time before being asked to go to Tokyo with the National coaches.

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The disappointment related to the blip in some wrestlers’ showing took an ugly turn when the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chose to wash dirty linen in public and slapped a temporary suspension on Vinesh and show-caused Sonam for her act of ‘indiscipline’.

Interestingly, Sonam got to know of her show-cause notice, for asking someone else to collect her passport from the WFI office, from the newspapers!

Different source-based news reports claim that the WFI held Vinesh responsible on three counts: i) not wearing the singlet provided by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), thereby hampering the sponsor’s interest, ii) demanding a separate room and iii) refusing to train with other Indian wrestlers. It was alleged that Vinesh said she might contract Covid as she travelled from Hungary and others travelled from India.

Did the WFI try to find out, informally, why Vinesh did what she did before placing her under suspension? Was she served a show-cause notice before being suspended?

According to media reports, the WFI president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, even raised questions about VInesh’s training in Hungary prior to the Olympics.

As the governing body of the sport in the country, the WFI is required to balance its duties of acting in fairness and yet taking strong steps in case any wrestler intentionally commits acts of indiscipline.

Braving odds: Despite nursing as knee injury, India’s Bajrang Punia managed to clinch the bronze medal in the men’s freestyle 65kg category.   -  AP

 

Amid all the negativity, Bajrang’s valiant showing was a brilliant example of a champion wrestler rising to the occasion. He used his experience and intelligence to do the unthinkable despite nursing a knee injury and staying away from the mat for about three weeks prior to the Olympics.

Keen to win an Olympic medal, the only triple World championships medal winning wrestler from the country changed his game to wrestle defensively and record wins over Ernazar Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan (3-3) and Morteza Ghiasi of Iran (by fall) to enter the semifinals. He lost to reputed Azerbaijani wrestler and eventual silver medallist Haji Aliyev (12-5) but returned the next day with a lot of determination to give his best and outclass Worlds silver medallist Daulet Niyazbekov (8-0) and take the bronze medal.

With the improvement in performance of the Indian wrestlers, who claimed two Olympic medals again after managing one in the form of Sakshi Malik’s bronze in Rio 2016, the system needs to run professionally to help the wrestlers shine even brighter in bigger international events.

Instead of blaming the wrestlers and their sponsors for the ‘below par’ performances in the Tokyo Olympics, the WFI would do well to put in place a robust and foolproof system to monitor every wrestler’s performance in the run-up to the Olympics and boost the sport’s contribution in India’s medals tally in the future.