Denied trial, goes to court, shines in the ring: Anuj Kumar’s battle to win Asian Wrestling Championships berth

Anuj Kumar will have some big shoes to fill – Bajrang Punia has represented India in the marquee weight category at the Continental championships since 2015.

Anuj Kumar poses after his selection trails.

Anuj Kumar poses after his selection trails. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Anuj Kumar will have some big shoes to fill – Bajrang Punia has represented India in the marquee weight category at the Continental championships since 2015.

Anuj Kumar Rohel had more than a few slaps on the back and congratulations coming his way after he earned the right to represent India in the men’s freestyle 65kg category at the Asian Wrestling championships by winning the selection trials at the Indira Gandhi Stadium on Friday.

The 23-year-old, will have some big shoes to fill – Olympic bronze medallist and three-time World medallist Bajrang Punia has represented India in the marquee weight category at the Continental championships since 2015.

Anuj beat among others, Sujeet Kumar who, as the reigning U-23 Asian champion and with victories over top American prospect Yianni Diakomihallis-- might have been considered the favourite in the 65kg division.

Indeed not only was Anuj not considered a favourite at the trials, but he also wasn’t even supposed to compete. He was only included in the list of competitors at the very last minute after a last-ditch throw of the legal dice. And while he has no shortage of supporters now, that wasn’t the case just a few days ago. “Right now everyone is cheering for me but many people weren’t happy when I went to the court,” says the 23-year-old.

Legal action wasn’t his first choice either but the 23-year-old reigning U-23 national champion and National Games gold medallist felt he had no option after he wasn’t included in the list of players who were permitted to compete at the selection trials to pick the Indian wrestling team.

The Federation, which is currently being run by an oversight committee appointed by the Sports Ministry due to various allegations against the office bearers of WFI, had fixed the criteria for entry to the trial – national championships gold or silver medallist and international medallists only -- and Anuj apparently didn’t meet it. After requesting them to include his name on the 3 rd of March, his request was rejected three days later.

“I’m not from a family that is comfortable going to courts. My father is a school teacher. We have always been taught to stay away from these matters,” says Anuj, who grew up in Nehla village in Haryana’s Fatehbad district. “In fact, at that time a lot of people came and told me there was no point getting into a court case. They said that if I had to stay in the sport for a long time, I shouldn’t upset people who were running it. But I felt I had no option. Wrestling is all that I do in life,” says Anuj.

Anuj says that perhaps if the Asian Championships were in a different year, he might have conceded the argument. “I couldn’t give up this year. This year is very important because it is the Olympic qualification year. If I didn’t get selected here, the chances were that I wouldn’t be selected for the Asian Games or get a chance for the World Championships either. The Asian Championships is a very important competition in preparation for the 2024 Olympics. I want to qualify for the Olympics. That’s why any of us wrestlers are still competing,” he says.

Anuj felt he had a case. He had been included to compete at the U-23 World Championships in Spain last year. But Spain had inexplicably rejected the vast majority of Indian visas – including Anuj’s-- leaving players unable to compete. “Only one Indian men’s freestyle wrestler competed in the U-23 Worlds (Aman Sehrawat) and he won gold. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t compete at the worlds. And after that, I won the National Games which is once every four years instead of once every year like the championships. I knew I had a lot of points in my favour,” he says.

Eventually though he decided to go ahead. “My coach Ajay Dhanda helped me find a lawyer. Not just me, another four wrestlers approached the Delhi high courts,” says Anuj. On Thursday, the High court directed the Wrestling Federation to include the five athletes in the trials. While the four others lost on the mat, Anuj managed to seal his selection spot.

The victory meant Anuj will compete in his highest-profile international tournament yet. He had competed in selection trials last year too but had lost to then national champion Rohit Singh. Ironically, Rohit was excluded from the selection trials this year for not meeting the criteria set by the oversight committee himself.

Anuj though isn’t going to complain.

“Everything happened at the last minute. We went to the court on 6 th and 8 th (Holi festival) were holidays. It was only on the 9 th that we got the direction in our favour. Initially, I was a little nervous whether I would be able to compete at the same level as the other athletes. But I was ready for the trials. Ever since I knew that the trials for the Asian championships were being held I had not stopped preparing for that competition,” he says.

With the selection spot assured, Anuj says he’s looking towards the Asian Championships in Kazakhstan next month and even beyond. “After I got the verdict in my favour, I’m full of confidence. I have to justify my selection. I want to do well at the Asian Championships and even after that. This year is very important for me. I’ve got many job offers already this year but I’m not even thinking of taking a job right now. If I take a job I’m going to be distracted. Wrestling is a 24-hour job. Right now I have no distractions. I have a very clear target,” he says.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :
Download Sportstar App
Download Sportstar App
 Pen, Paper and Podcast with Vijay Lokapally
Connect With Us