Olympic selection: Time to change prevailing practice in wrestling?

After producing three medals in the last two Olympics, wrestling is slowly reaching a scenario where multiple competitors are vying for one spot. Perhaps, the Sushil-Narsingh episode will make the WFI take note of the changing times and alter its selection criteria in future.

Kyle Snyder tries to take down Jake Varner (left) during their 97 kg freestyle final match at the U.S. Olympic Trials on April 10, 2016, in Iowa. World champion Snyder had secured a quota berth for the Rio Olympics and confirmed it by defeating Olympic champion Varner.   -  AP

The Sushil Kumar-Narsingh Yadav tussle for an Olympic berth has put the Wrestling Federation of India’s role under scrutiny and raised questions as to whether the national federation is right in sticking to the two-and-a-half-decade old tradition of sending only the wrestlers who have earned Olympic quota places to the Olympics.

The WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has gone on record saying that the federation does not want to break the tradition as it will discourage wrestlers from preparing for the Olympics.

“The national federation of every country has the prerogative of selecting wrestlers for international events, including the Olympics. But you will not find any guidelines specifying how they should pick the wrestlers. All over the world, different countries adopt different ways to select wrestlers — some send the Olympic qualifying wrestlers, while others hold trials. The WFI is entitled to follow any norm while selecting athletes for the Olympics,” observes noted commentator Jagdish Kaliraman.

“Leave aside wrestling, other sports disciplines across the globe normally send the Olympic qualifying athletes to the Games. However, there are some exceptions as well.”

Eminent coach Mahabir Prasad confirms this. “Since 1992, when the qualification was introduced, the WFI has been adopting the policy of sending the Olympics quota winning wrestlers to the mega event. The only exception was the trial between Kaka Pawar and Pappu Yadav as India got a wildcard in 48 kg Greco Roman class in 1996.”

Mahabir, nevertheless, gives instances of some top wrestling nations such as the USA and Russia holding trials for their top grapplers to decide who goes to the Olympics. “In April this year, the USA had its Olympic trials where World champion Kyle Snyder and Olympic champion Jake Varner wrestled in 97 kg and the former, who already had secured a quota place, confirmed his ticket to Rio by defeating the latter.”

In other categories, where the USA was yet to secure a quota place, the champion of the selection trials was to go to the Olympics if he earned a berth through the qualifying system.

“Russia too picks the best wrestler instead of just sticking to the one who gets the quota place. But in these countries, the wrestlers remain active and compete in some tournaments every year.”

Other top wrestling countries including Japan and Iran also conduct trials to decide who boards the flight to the Olympics. In India, disciplines such as shooting and archery hold selection trials and send the successful athletes to the Olympics. Since the quota place belongs to the country, just winning it does not guarantee one a place in the Olympics.

In all such situations, the one common factor over the years has been the abundance of talent at the domestic level. After producing three medals in the last two Olympics, wrestling is slowly reaching a similar scenario where multiple competitors are vying for one spot.

Perhaps, the Sushil-Narsingh episode will make the WFI take note of the changing times and alter its approach in future.