Medals, Olympic quotas... a wrestling carnival for India

The Wrestling Federation of India expected a better performance at the World Championships in Nur-Sultan, but the current showing is not bad.

The country’s unprecedented performance, five medals and four Olympic quota places, in the World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, speaks of the constant inflow of talent and the solid bench strength in freestyle wrestling in India.

So far, Indian wrestlers have bagged a total of 18 medals, including one gold and four silver, in the elite event. Five of them (all bronze) have been won by women.

Since the World Championships in the pre-Olympics year offers maximum quota places, it is the most competitive platform ahead of the quadrennial extravaganza. India earning nearly one-third of its overall medals and a quartet of quota places indicates the level of its wrestlers.

After the euphoric performance of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt in the 2012 London Olympics and the brilliant display of the second generation of wrestlers — Amit Dahiya, Bajrang Punia and Greco-Roman wrestler Sandeep Yadav — in the 2013 Budapest World championships, the scenario didn’t look very promising (despite Narsingh Yadav and Sakshi Malik’s bronze medals in the Worlds and Olympics respectively).

Medals earned by Bajrang and Pooja Dhanda in last year’s World Championships gave hope before the best-ever showing in Nur-Sultan pointed towards a brighter future.

Accomplished wrestlers such as Bajrang, Rahul Aware and Vinesh Phogat, performed to their potential and new faces like Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya exhibited their talent to claim one silver and four bronze medals.

The icing on the cake was the Olympic quota places bagged by Vinesh, Bajrang, Deepak and Ravi. This will encourage other Indian wrestlers in the coming Olympic qualifying events to go for more berths in the Tokyo Games.

Bajrang Punia gains a hold against Tulga Tumur Ochir of Mongolia in the bronze match of the men’s 65kg category at the World Wrestling Championships. Bajrang triumphed.   -  AP

 

For India to achieve the ambitious target of double digits in the Tokyo medals tally, two disciplines have to contribute significantly. One is shooting and the other wrestling.

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) expected a better performance in Nur-Sultan. But the national body should understand that the current showing is not bad considering the fact that there was no contribution from the ever-disappointing Greco-Roman wrestlers.

“This time the Indian side looked different. We were as good as any other top wrestling country,” said Dronacharya award- winning coach Mahavir Prasad.

“At least five to six more wrestlers can qualify and we may send one of the biggest squads to the Olympics. In men’s weights like 74kg, 97kg and 125kg we are quite good. In the women’s section, we have good wrestlers in 57kg and 62kg.”

Coming to individual performances, the previous year’s silver medallist Bajrang’s disheartening loss in the semifinals, in controversial circumstances, dashed his hopes of a World Championships title. No doubt he added another Worlds medal to his cabinet, but he was not pleased with his effort.

Clearly, the ace 65kg wrestler, who has been claiming medals consistently in top-level events for the last couple of years, was not at his best.

“Even without the unfair decisions which went against him, we did not see the best of Bajrang. One cannot always remain at the top of one’s game. There have to be some slumps,” said Mahavir.

Vinod Kumar, another prominent coach who works in the national camp, said the three-time Worlds medallist was a bit unlucky. “Bajrang gave his best against all odds. Sometimes luck does not favour you.”

Mahavir suggested a two-pronged approach for Bajrang — who trailed initially in all his bouts — to get back to his peak. “He needs to work on his slow start and leg defence. Besides, he must preserve himself without getting exposed at too many events. Overexposure gives ample opportunities to opponents to assess one’s game and there are plenty of examples of this.”

Ravi Dahiya, the 57kg bronze winner at the Worlds. He defeated Iran’s Reza Ahmadali Atrinagharch for the medal.   -  PTI

 

Vinesh, who quickly adapted to the 53kg after switching from 50kg, reaped the benefits of her improved game and mental composure. “Earlier, she used to make a lot of mistakes. Now, it has come down. She is fighting with a cool mind and making good decisions on the spot,” said Mahavir.

“Vinesh was superb except for her bout against the Japanese. She is definitely a medal contender in Tokyo,” observed Vinod.

Ravi, who claimed the 57kg bronze, and Deepak, who pocketed the 86kg silver, also impressed with their spirited fights.

“Ravi is an attacking wrestler and does not allow his opponents to settle down. Deepak is full of enthusiasm after winning the world junior title and enjoyed his luck after being drawn in a lighter half,” said Mahavir.

According to Vinod, Deepak could not have asked for more. “Deepak showed his calibre and deserves credit. It’s not easy to qualify from such a heavier weight.

“Ravi is talented too and needs to gain more experience.”

Aware, a 29-year-old underachiever, was an exception, not just being a Maharashtrian medal-winner among a bunch of Haryanvi wrestlers, but also being the lone Indian to win a medal in a non-Olympic weight.

A file picture of Rahul Aware being chaired at the Pune airport on his triumphant return from the Commonwealth Games last year. Aware won bronze in the 61kg at the recent Worlds.   -  Mandar Tannu

 

“With some luck, Rahul could have won the 61kg title. Nevertheless, he broke the notion that he cannot do well in big events abroad,” said Mahavir.

Two Olympic medallists, Sushil Kumar (74kg) and Sakshi Malik (62kg), could not live up to their reputation.

“Sushil got a tough opponent in the first round. Because of his age, he has to work on his stamina. He has to fight more bouts. With his experience and four to five months of training, I am sure, he will bag a quota place in the Asian qualifier,” said Vinod.

Even though Sakshi has reportedly got a reprimand from the WFI for her performance, Mahavir felt the Rio Olympics bronze medallist was good and lost in a close contest. Even Pooja lost narrowly and can earn us a quota place if she returns from 59kg to 57kg, said Mahavir.

Since the next major target is the Olympics, the wrestlers must train their energies towards a smooth build-up for the Games.

Mahavir said training abroad before the Olympics would help. “In a colder climate, the recovery is always faster. Also, they get an organic diet, which is important for an athlete.”

Vinod had a few suggestions, too. “Most of our wrestlers have the problem of weak leg defence. We had a discussion with head coach Jagminder Singh and we have to work on ground work and gut wrench.”

Vinesh Phogat (right) and Maria Prevolaraki of Greece lock horns in the bronze match of the women’s 53kg category at the Worlds. Phogat emerged with success.   -  AP

 

The ambitious WFI, which also put tough questions to Bajrang’s coach Shako Bentinidis and the Greco-Roman wrestlers, might not sound too happy. But deep inside it would know that the concerted efforts put up by itself along with the Union Sports Ministry and the sponsor Tata Motors in providing good facilities for the wrestlers enabled them to do well.

That Indian wrestlers are getting the benefit of competing alongside elite foreign wrestlers in the Pro Wrestling League should also be highlighted.

If the wrestlers shine in bigger events, the sport’s profile goes up. But the WFI should understand that putting too much pressure on the athletes and support staff can prove counter-productive.

A balanced approach, laced with mutual trust and respect, will create a healthy environment devoid of fear and insecurity. It will also spur the wrestlers to give their best for the country on the biggest sporting stage in less than a year’s time.