Respecting a champion, but not the championship

The gesture of the three grapplers, who forfeited their bouts out of “respect” for Sushil Kumar, turned the double Olympic medal winner’s return to competitive wrestling into a farce. It also questioned the seriousness of the National Championship.

Sushil Kumar being greeted by the crowd after claiming the 74kg title in the National wrestling championship in Indore.   -  Y. B. Sarangi

The National Championship in Indore recently attracted unprecedented attention due to the participation of several star wrestlers. Double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and World Championship medallist Geeta Phogat chose the event to make their return to competitive wrestling, while the bronze medal winner at the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik, used the competition as a platform to assert her supremacy ahead of several important assignments, including the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games next year.

Experienced wrestlers such as Mausam Khatri and Rahul Aware also made a comeback after injury layoffs.

Even though the presence of so many well-known faces was a source of excitement for the fans in Indore — which hosted the National Championship for the first time — the no-show of Sushil Kumar’s opponents in three crucial rounds — quarterfinal, semifinal and final of the 74 kg freestyle — took some gloss off the event. Sushil went on to the mat and was declared winner in each of these rounds, as the opponents touched the feet of the legendary wrestler and forfeited their bouts out of “respect” for the former World champion.

The gesture of the three wrestlers turned Sushil’s return to the mat into a farce. It also questioned the seriousness of the National Championship, which is the most important event on the domestic calendar.

Mausam Khatri beat Satyawart Kadian in the semifinals in the National wrestling championship.   -  Special Arrangement

 

The ‘respect’ shown by Praveen, Sachin Rathi and former Asian Championship medallist Parveen Rana was also an insult to the sport, which is bigger than any individual, and the wrestling crazy Indore audience, which admired and hailed Sushil with loud cheers. The incidents also spoiled Sushil’s chance of getting some competitive exposure that would have helped the Olympian in the run-up to the upcoming events, including the Pro Wrestling League (PWL).

Sushil enjoyed the respect even though he said that he was ready for the bouts. “Good that they showed respect to me, but whenever I go on the mat I go there to fight,” he said.

The most crucial question is: Will these wrestlers, who gave Sushil walkovers, show the same gesture during selection trials for the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games or any other big event?

Credit must go to the two young wrestlers, Lalmalsawma and Mukul Mishra, who, despite knowing that they were no match for Sushil, showed the heart to take on the superstar. The Mizoram wrestler could only fight for less than a minute, while the one from Jharkhand lasted for one minute and 45 seconds. However, they were proud of their experience of fighting with Sushil.

Indore, a popular wrestling centre

Talking of his comeback and targets, Sushil said, “Whenever I am fit, I try to compete. I tried to make a comeback for the 2016 Olympics, but that did not happen. I keep short targets, so I am not thinking too far ahead (about the 2020 Olympics).”

It will be interesting to see whether Sushil competes in a less challenging event like the Commonwealth Championship in December and the PWL. These are the two competitive events available to Sushil before the Commonwealth Games, where the ace wrestler has the chance of winning his third title in a row.

Sakshi cruised to her National crown in the 62 kg category, finishing off her bouts in quick time. She also got a walkover in one of her bouts.

After switching to the new category following the change in weight classes, this was the first National title for Sakshi, who is the only woman wrestler from the country to win an Olympic medal.

Rahul Aware wins his final bout.   -  Special Arrangement

 

For Geeta, who was out of action for some time, it was an occasion to test her form and fitness. She went through her bouts with great confidence and flair to win the title in the 59 kg category. Geeta also had a smooth sailing in all her bouts barring the one against the Asian Championship medallist, Sarita. In the keenly-contested semifinal bout, Geeta used her experience to fight back valiantly against her younger rival and assert her class.

Her husband Pawan Kumar winning the gold medal in 86 kg was a double delight for Geeta.

Two other Phogat sisters, Vinesh and Ritu, also emerged champions in 55 kg and 50 kg respectively, while Sangeeta Phogat settled for the silver medal after losing to a superior Pooja Dhanda in the 57 kg final.

Aware and Khatri returned in style to claim gold medals in 61 kg and 97 kg respectively.

In the semifinals, Aware tamed Harphool while the old warhorse, Khatri, bested Commonwealth Games medallist and Sakshi’s husband Satyawart Kadian to prove his worth.

Among the up-and-coming wrestlers, Utkarsh Kale (men’s 57 kg freestyle), Ritu Malik (women’s 65 kg) and Divya Kakran (women’s 68 kg) gave impressive performances to win their maiden National titles.

Kale displayed supreme fitness and sound technique to excel in a tough field that included two Olympians, Sandeep Tomar and Amit Kumar. Ritu defeated accomplished wrestlers such as Geetika Jakhar, Shilpi and Gargi Yadav to corner glory. Divya, an Asian cadet medallist, outclassed most of her opponents and upset Commonwealth Games silver medallist Navjot Kaur to announce her arrival.

The close contests in several weight categories indicate an improvement in the overall standard of Indian wrestling. And this augurs well in the run-up to some mega events in 2018.