Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat attained superstardom with historic medals but two other history-makers found themselves grappling for relevance in a year during which Indian wrestling moved towards a hitherto unexplored contracts system.
With the national federation’s decision to introduce a contracts system for 150 grapplers in India, the sport is set to be professionalised like never before.
What was more historic than this move was the way Bajrang and Vinesh meticulously went about giving solid performances through the year.
It was not just the gold medals but the manner in which the two won them, which raised hopes of India getting its first gold-medallist in the sport come Olympics in less than two years’ time.
Sushil, Sakshi stumble
Speaking of Olympics, 2018 was largely forgettable for Sushil Kumar -- India’s only double Olympic-medallist -- and Sakshi Malik -- the country’s first and only woman wrestler to win a medal at the biggest stage.
Sushil still had a CWG gold, albeit in a not-so-strong field, to take comfort from but it was a stunning downward spiral that Sakshi went through.
Sakshi’s CWG and Asian Games ended in tears, although she did win a bronze in the former event in Gold Coast. The 26-year-old admitted that she needs to be mentally stronger to pull off close bouts.
On the other hand, Sushil’s Asian Games challenge fell flat in the first round itself but he rejected suggestions that his dominance was coming to an end. Instead, he remained bullish about his prowess and insisted that he has unfinished business at the Tokyo Games.
The year 2019 -- in which the World Championship will be a chance to book Olympic quota berths -- will determine if the two grapplers remain relevant to Indian wrestling.
Before the Worlds in September in Astana, there will be plenty of events, including the Asian Championship in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan which will provide hints on what lies in store for these two.
Dearth in replacements
Despite the fact that the two are not in great form, the recent Nationals in Gonda failed to throw up any replacements in their respective categories.
Sakshi easily won the national title to finally draw something positive out of a largely disappointing year. And the 74kg men’s category does not have anyone who is even close to what Sushil is even now.
The Commonwealth Games may not be the best yardstick but considering that the Asian bloc is a powerhouse of the sport, Bajrang and Vinesh’s gold medals at the Jakarta Games assume significance.
Vinesh began her victorious Jakarta campaign with a revenge win over Chinese Yanan Sun against whom she suffered the career-threatening knee injury which ended her Rio Olympics campaign in excruciating pain.
In the next bout she brushed aside the challenge of Korea’s Hyungjoo Kim by technical superiority, ending the bout with a four-point throw.
Her semifinal lasted just 75 seconds as she moved into the final with a ‘fitley’ and grabbed the gold with ease, outplaying Japan’s Yuki Irie.
These are the same opponents, who are likely to figure in the 50kg category in Tokyo, and experts believe that with such class, Vinesh will be a strong contender for a medal.
While Vinesh missed out on adding a World Championship medal to her kitty due to an injury, Bajrang won a silver at Budapest Worlds to end the year with medals at every major championship this season.
However, the defeat in the world championship final was a reminder that his defence on the leg attack is still a work in progress. Japan’s Takuto Otoguro kept attacking Bajrang’s right leg and he could not find a way out and had to settle for a second-place finish.
This was after his dominating show throughout the year at the CWG, Tbilisi Grand Prix, Yasar Dogu International and Asian Games. Bajrang ended the year as world number one in 65kg, though an elbow injury pegged him back slightly.
Pooja Dhanda shines
The other Phogats — Ritu, Sangeeta, Babita and Geeta — more or less endured a quiet year and even missed out on appearing for Asian Games trials.
But one woman, who bit by bit created her own space in Indian wrestling was Pooja Dhanda. She added a World Championship bronze to her CWG gold.
In most of her bouts, she trailed overwhelmingly but managed to bridge the gap and tilt the result in her favour. This was in complete contrast to what Sakshi was doing.
Pooja became only the fourth Indian woman after Alka Tomar, Geeta and Babita to win a medal at the Worlds.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) earned some applause for pumping in money in the sport by striking a deal with the Tata Motors.
In a three-year deal as Indian wrestling’s principal sponsor, Tata Motors’ will support the development of the sport at various levels.
It’s first benefit is already there to be seen with WFI offering central contracts to 150 wrestlers.
The top A Grade, which offers Rs 30 lakh as support, initially just had Bajrang, Vinesh and Pooja but WFI later added Sushil and Sakshi’s name after realising that the duo’s reputation took a hit.
But given their below-par results this year, it didn’t seem to be an unfair call to keep them out of the top bracket.
The coming year is an important one for all Olympic disciplines and Indian wrestling can only hope for better results with foreign coaches set to join the national camp.
For the first time, the WFI has managed to procure services of a coach from Asian powerhouse Iran. Hossein Karimi is set to join along with Andrew Cook of USA and Georgia’s Temo Kazarashvili on a one-year contract.
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