Wrestling stars of Tokyo bundled out in selection trials for Paris Olympic qualifiers

Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya, medallists from Tokyo 2020, lost in the selection trials for the Indian wrestling squad for the Asian qualifiers for Paris Olympics. 

Published : Mar 11, 2024 07:48 IST , NEW DELHI - 7 MINS READ

Aman Sehrawat won the men’s 57kg category in the trials to select the Indian wrestling squad for the Asian Olympic qualifiers.
Aman Sehrawat won the men’s 57kg category in the trials to select the Indian wrestling squad for the Asian Olympic qualifiers. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Aman Sehrawat won the men’s 57kg category in the trials to select the Indian wrestling squad for the Asian Olympic qualifiers. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On Sunday morning, ahead of the trials to select the Indian wrestling squad for the Asian Olympic qualifiers, Aman Sehrawat clicked ‘play’ on a video he has religiously watched for the last year and a half.

The 20-year-old was going into the trials as one of India’s top prospects in the men’s 57kg freestyle wrestling category – he has a gold at the Zagreb ranking series at the start of the year, is the reigning Asian champion, a bronze medallist at last year’s Asian Games, and was the first Indian to win a gold medal at the 2022 U-23 World Championships.

But for all his talents, the fact remains that in India, the 57kg category is synonymous with the name of Ravi Dahiya. As he makes his comeback from a knee surgery he underwent last year, the 26-year-old might not be at his peak but his bronze medal at the 2019 World championships and the silver medal from the Tokyo Olympics more than speaks of what he is capable of. And as luck had it, thanks to the round robin nature of his draw Aman was scheduled to face Ravi in his second bout of the competition.

The video Aman watched in the morning of the trials was a reminder, that for all his talents, there was one other wrestler who he would have to get the better of to truly be counted as the best in his weight category. The clip is of the final of the wrestling selection trials for the 2022 Commonwealth Games when Aman wrestled against Ravi for the first ever time. Aman remembers the bout as if it happened yesterday – it’s not easy to forget after all.

“I last competed with Ravi Dahiya at the Commonwealth Games selection trials. I lost it 10-0. It was a result that really troubled me. Every day after that defeat, I would go and watch that bout. Even before today’s bout I watched that bout. I watched that bout to remind myself what mistakes I made,” he says.

The mistake Aman says was to be swept up in the pedigree of his opponent. “In that bout, I let myself think ‘Oh he is an Olympic silver medallist. He is such a big wrestler’. By doing that I wrestled his game rather than my own. I’m naturally a very attacking wrestler. But in that bout I became too defensive and that’s why I lost,” he says.

Self belief key

Whenever Aman watched the video, it served as a reminder to back his own ability instead. That’s exactly what he did during his bout against Ravi. He set the tempo attacking early in the first round. While the scramble would end in Ravi scoring four points to two by Aman, the gauntlet had been laid down. Aman kept attacking and kept racking up points. He led 12-4 at one stage, before Ravi reversed the momentum with a hip toss for 4 points with about a minute to go in the bout. Although Ravi stormed back in the closing seconds, Aman would hold on for a 14-13 win.

The victory was a first ever for Aman against Ravi. But it wasn’t the only one against the Olympic silver medallist. Ravi’s very next bout was against the 2023 Asian Junior Champion Udit. Ravi was once again put under pressure by a youngster with no respect for precedence. Udit led 9-1 at one stage. Ravi once again found a late surge before eventually losing 8-9.

The defeat – the second for Ravi in the three bouts he would wrestle in the group phase -- would end his campaign in the trials. Indeed it’s uncertain whether Ravi will be part of the Olympic qualification process at any stage.

Ravi wasn’t the only highly decorated wrestler to be stung by defeat at the hands of younger and hungrier opponents. Four time World medallist and Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia too saw his campaign end in the semifinals of the men’s 65kg at the hands of 22-year-old Rohit Kumar.

Bajrang ousted too

Like Aman, Rohit too had wrestled his senior compatriot before – once in 2018 and another in 2022 where he too lost in the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games. The more recent defeat was a close 3-2 result. Although his bout on Sunday started cagily, a five point throw in the second half opened up the match with Rohit eventually cruising to a 9-1 win.

While the junior players showed no sign of fear in playing their senior rivals, there was a clear function of respect. Towards the end of his semifinal bout, Rohit, controlling one of Bajrang’s legs, had physically shoved him out of the playing circle. In doing so he had opened a near impregnable lead. With just three seconds remaining, Bajrang accepted defeat and stretched out his hand. Rohit in turn bent low to touch Punia’s feet in the traditional show of deference to an elder. After he edged Ravi 10-8, Udit too touched the senior wrestler’s feet.

Rohit would later explain why he had done so. “I respect him a lot. He has won four medals at the World Championships. When I compare the wrestler I competed with today to the one who I wrestled with at the Asian Championships selection trials (in 2022) there is a lot of difference. He isn’t as strong. But the last year has been difficult for him. He hasn’t been able to train as regularly because of the protests,” said Rohit who in turn was beaten by Sujeet Kalkal in the final of the men’s 65kg category.

Rohit was referring to the protests Bajrang had been a part of – directed against the ex-president of the Wrestling Federation of India who several women wrestlers had accused of harassment. Although Bajrang had made a late desperate attempt to get ready for another Olympic campaign, the multiple weeks he had spent protesting on the streets of New Delhi in the summer of last year had undoubtedly hurt his campaign. While Ravi had not been part of the protests after its early days, he too has been struggling with a knee issue for which he had undergone a surgery last year. While he had returned to competition this year, he’s a long way off his personal best as his results would have shown.

Future uncertain

For now it’s uncertain what the future holds for the two icons of Indian sport. Neither will be eligible to compete for an Olympic quota (That right goes to the winner of the selection trials) nor the Asian Championships (that right goes to the losing finalist). Their best hope will be that India does win an Olympic quota and that they are then included in the trials to determine who that quota eventually goes too – a competition that’s scheduled to be held in late May. According to the norms laid out by the ad-hoc committee which runs the sport in India, only the top four finishers at Sunday’s competition will be included in that future trials. While Bajrang having made the semifinals should be included in the last four, the fate of Ravi, who didn’t advance from the round robin stage, is uncertain.

For now at least, the focus in Indian wrestling shifts from the stars of Olympics past to contemporary performers. And that’s true for the wrestlers themselves. Aman, for instance, says he’s now finally going to stop watching videos of his bout with Ravi. “Now that I’ve won the selection trials, I’ll start preparing for the Asian qualifiers. There are a lot of good wrestlers in Asia who I could meet. I’ll start analysing their bouts now,” he says.

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