New Delhi: Gone are the days when wrestling was mainly restricted to rural areas of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Ever since Sushil Kumar won his first of the two Olympic medals at the Beijing Games, the sport has been seeing an upward graph in the country.
And when he won a silver in London and with Yogeshwar Dutt chipping in with a bronze, the phenomenal growth of this game could well be seen in every nook and corner of the country.
It all started after the 2009 World Championship when Rakesh Kumar won bronze. And as Sushil became India’s first wrestling World Champion the next year, there was no looking back. Incheon Asian Games became memorable as India won five medals, including a first time gold by Yogeshwar.
Before that India swept almost all the weight categories at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, winning medals in 13 of the 14 categories including five golds.
Though, there is no Sushil this time for India at the Rio, wrestling is still India’s top medal prospect alongside shooting. The last few days have, however, have not been good for the sport in the country. The alleged doping conspiracy against Narsingh Pancham Yadav has robbed country of a probable medal.
The momentum generated by grabbing an unprecedented eight berths for Rio has suddenly been swapped by the rivalry between two powerful factions — North vs Maharashtra — to go one up against each other.
Since a qualification quota is awarded to the country and not to any individual, India still has eight quotas intact after world wrestling body has once again allowed India to send replacement for Narsingh.
Sandeep Tomar (57kg men’s freestyle), Yogeshwar Dutt (65kg freestyle), Narsingh Yadav/Praveen Rana (74kg freestyle), Vinesh Phogat (48kg women’s), Babita Kumari (53kg women’s), Sakshi Malik (58kg women’s), Hardeep (98kg Greco-Roman) and Ravinder Khatri (85kg Greco-Roman) are all going through a rigorous training schedule to match up to the London tally (Yogeshwar winning silver, Sushil Kumar bronze)
Can Lady Luck smile?
The biggest reason for wrestling fraternity to celebrate this time around is the participation of three female grapplers in Rio.
In London, there was only Geeta Phogat, who managed to secure a quota in the 55kg category. But in Rio, there will be her cousin Vinesh, 21, who will try and pick that elusive medal for a family that has become the focus wrestling lovers in India.
She first broke onto the international scene winning the 2014 Glasgow Games gold beating home favourite Yana Rattigan of England, despite being the most inexperienced of the lot. She followed it with a bronze at the Asian Games, losing only to the eventual gold medallist Eri Tosaka of Japan.
But, talk to any of the coaches around these three and they will tell you that it would be foolish to single out any particular name from the three — Babita and Sakshi the other two — for a medal prospect as all of them are equally hungry to leave a mark there.
Yogeshwar, the leader
The London bronze medallist in the 60 kg category has not just moved up in the weight category (65kg) but has also become the chief motivator of the wrestling contingent.
The top WFI bosses are only looking at him for a gold. The 33-year-old reigning Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist has only to worry about his old injuries than any of his opponents.
His swift movement and ability to create chances on the mat is something that is being shown on video DVD to all his younger colleagues. His story of courage, where he managed to make a comeback after double knee surgeries before London and then three operations in 2015, is being told to all the campers as motivational story.
Playing his fourth Olympics, Yogeshwar fully understands that he needs this big medal in order to come out of the shadows of his ‘once upon a time best friend’ Sushil. Ask him and he will tell you that “we are no more in talking terms”.
Yogi (as he is popularly called) is probably the only grappler in India who has huge following on social media. Be it his stand on the JNU-government stand off or Afzal Guru issue, Yogi is one of those rare sportsmen who has guts to speak his mind. Rio simply would be his biggest test of character and if he gets what is expected out of him, he could well be the undisputed leader of generation next of Indian wrestling.