India’s campaign at the 2022 World Wrestling Championships ended on a high note with Bajrang Punia beating Sebastian Rivera to win the fourth World Championship medal of his career.
With just two bronze medals - Vinesh Phogat won the other in the women’s 53kg competition earlier in the tournament - to show between 30 competitors though, it’s fair to say that the result has come as a bit of a letdown.
Indeed, the result was India’s worst performance at a world-level event since the 2017 World Championships, when they couldn’t place a single athlete on the podium.
The result was all the more disappointing since India was both coming off one of their best-ever results at the Olympic Games but should have also benefited from the absence of wrestling powerhouse Russia and Belarus from the competition.
Much of the blame for that can be laid on the fact that many of India’s top wrestlers opted out of the World Championships and that India only named their team a little over a week before the start of the tournament.
Delayed and Denied Trials
Amongst the strangest decisions made by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) in recent times was the one to conduct selection trials to pick the squad less than two weeks before the start of the tournament.
The selection trials for the men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman teams were conducted on August 30th, while the women’s trials were conducted a day before that.
“The World Championships isn’t a tournament you can prepare for in a week’s time. In 10 days, there’s little you can do apart from recovering from the trials and making weight for the world championships,” says a coach who didn’t want to be named.
Indeed, while the men’s freestyle wrestlers at least got a couple of weeks between their trials and the World Championships, the women and Greco-Roman wrestlers, whose tournaments started earlier, would face issues with their weight cuts.
Vinesh Phogat, who would go on to win a bronze, suffered a shock loss to Mongolia’s Khulan Batkhuyag and would acknowledge having severe weight-cutting issues. No other international teams conducted trials for their World Championships teams as close to the tournament as the Indian contingent sent by the federation did.
The selection trials for the USA – which won the men’s freestyle team championships for instance were concluded on June 8th – three months before the World Championships – giving their wrestlers plenty of time to peak for the Worlds.
There would also be another unfortunate fallout in the timing of the women’s freestyle trials. It meant that Antim Panghal, who won India’s first-ever gold at the Junior World Championships only had a couple of days after that competition to prepare for the selection meeting.
Panghal would lose to Vinesh Phogat at the selection trials and would go on to compete at the World Championships, where the gold medal was won by USA’s Dominique Parrish.
Parrish incidentally had been beaten by technical superiority by Antim just a couple of months before.
While conducting trials less than a fortnight before the start of the World Championships, the WFI also announced that Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang Punia and Deepak Punia wouldn’t have to compete at all.
What this meant was that there would be no selection process in two of the most talent-heavy divisions in Indian wrestling - 57kg and 65kg. For perspective, since the weight categories were updated in 2015, three out of the five medals India has won in the men’s freestyle division have been in the men’s 57kg and 65kg divisions.
With Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia automatically picked for these weight divisions, wrestlers looking to compete at the World Championships had to either move up to the 61kg or the 70kg weight classes.
This meant that some of India’s best wrestlers were competing in a category where they were at a disadvantage position.
Sujeet, who was the Junior Asian Champion and won a bronze medal at the Junior World Championships in August this year, had to compete in the men’s 70kg division despite being smaller for that weight.
Sujeet, who incidentally had beaten the eventual world silver medallist Yianni Diakomihalis, would end up losing in the selection trials and wouldn’t travel to Belgrade.
What also didn’t help matters for the Indian team competing at the World Championships was that many of the wrestlers competing had just competed at the Commonwealth Games (CWG).
While the standard of the CWG isn’t particularly high, most of the Indian wrestlers had been looking to peak at that tournament.
“There’s around a month between the Commonwealth Games and World Championships. It’s not easy to cut weight twice for two major tournaments so quickly. Ideally, you need to take a break and recover after such a major tournament. If you notice, most of the wrestlers who did well at the Commonwealth Games either didn’t take part in the World Championships or did badly,” says a coach who didn’t want to be named.
Indeed except for Vinesh Phogat, CWG gold medallist in the women’s 53kg category and Linda Morais, the silver medallist in the women’s 68kg weight division, none of the medallists from Birmingham were placed at Belgrade.
Nigeria’s Blessing Oborududu, who like Ravi Dahiya, had won silver at the Olympics (albeit in the women’s 68kg category) and gold at the CWG also lost like the Indian, early in the World Championships.
Similarly, Anshu Malik, who won a silver at the 2021 World Championships and a medal of the same colour in the women’s 57kg category at the CWG, skipped the World Championships to undergo elbow surgery.
Odunayo Adekueroye, the gold medallist in the women’s 57kg category at the CWG in Birmingham and a three-time world medallist also skipped the Belgrade competition to get married. The struggle to stay sharp for two major tournaments at short notice has little to do with motivation.
India and Felicitation Functions
Ravi Dahiya, for instance, had skipped most felicitation functions after the CWG and headed to Russia to train for the World Championships. However, he too was beaten by a wrestler he had gotten the better off just a few months before en route to a gold medal at the Asian Championships.
While the calendar might have hurt India’s chances at the World Championships this year, the coaches and federation will have to find a way to overcome that obstacle since the same scenario is likely to play out next year when the Asian Games and the World Championships are scheduled to be held within a few weeks of each other.
Youngsters show promise
While India’s top names might not have lived up to their billing, there is a positive in the performance of some of the younger names in the squad. 19-year-old Naveen, who had won a gold in the men’s 74kg category at the CWG finished fifth in the World Championships after beating Asian bronze medallist Syrbaz Talgat and losing a tight 4-1 decision to the 2021 World silver medallist Ernazar Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan.
Sagar Jaglan, a 19-year-old, also finished fifth at the World Championships in the men’s 74kg category after winning two bouts by technical superiority before being beaten by two elite wrestlers in Kyle Dake and Yones Emamichoghaei.
In the women’s weight division, Nisha Dahiya was within touching distance of India’s first medal in the women’s 68kg category. She narrowly lost 5-4 to Japan’s Ami Ishii in the semifinals and was leading 4-0 in the bronze medal bout before suffering an injury that cost her her match against Linda Morais. Sushma Shokeen, 22-year-old, also looked good in the women’s 55kg weight division staying competitive with an eventual silver medallist Oleksandra Khomenets and leading Mariana Dragutan 8-0 in her repechage match before making falling into a fireman’s carry throw that saw her get pinned.
While none of them was able to make it to the podium, there was enough talent on display that would give India hope going into the end of the season.