Two Olympic medals. For a nation bereft of much Olympic glory, two medals spell the zenith of individual consistency on the harshest sporting stage in the world. Sushil Kumar Solanki won Silver at London and Bronze at Beijing in freestyle wrestling. No other Indian has won two individual medals on the trot in two Games. And Sushil is still not done.
India’s most successful wrestler has not stepped into the ring for a competitive bout since his Gold at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. That was nearly 22 months ago. In the meantime his understudy and a man he has mentored, Narsingh Yadav, has earned a quota place in the 74 kg freestyle category at Rio. Now, Olympic rules dictate that this place doesn’t belong to the athlete, it belongs to the country. In the past, given that we hardly had a slew of world-class wrestlers in any weight category, a qualification usually ensured participation (a trial was held in the 48kg Greco-Roman ahead of 1996 Atlanta Games). This time around Narsingh is likely to face-off against Sushil in trials to decide just who gets to go.
Citius, altius, fortius
This has unleashed slanderous gossip. Wrestling upstarts have begun a whispering campaign undermining the man’s commitment. There is talk of him nursing a right shoulder injury, rather, of him hiding it. His detractors insinuate he is desperate to add a fourth Olympic participation to his list of accolades.
This writer went to meet Sushil to suss out his preparedness for Rio. The first bit that hits you as you walk into the small indoor training hall at Chhatrasal Stadium is the smell of stale sweat. It’s hardly a top-notch facility with the scattered, part-rusted weights and make-shift attention to tidying up things. Sushil walks in, clearly at home. After all, he is now the administrator of the facility too. For the next hour he grapples four different sparring partners. He worked his way through a 70kg wrestler. 76, 87 and 125kg guys follow next. Four bouts – ten minutes of grappling followed by a minute’s rest, one after the other.
Moving from his earlier 66kg category to the 74 he must now be, given the new rules, Sushil has had to increase his workload to an altogether different level. His coaching staff claims he at times does as many as 1,000 pull-ups a day. Sit-ups and pushups too hover in the same region. There is a 26-metre rope strung outside the hall. There are a bunch of them. The younger trainees huff and puff to barely halfway before they are forced down. Grasping it between just his hands, Sushil is said to be able to shimmy up and down three times at a stretch before he puts his feet back on the ground.
Then, maintaining the brahmacharya tradition of our wrestling lore, his coach whispers to me that he has been celibate for close to a year. The traditional belief is that a wrestler who spills his seed loses vital energy. All this benumbing commitment can’t be about a man who wants to go to Rio to make up the numbers.
Gold is king
“Ek medal baki hain (one medal has still not been won),” he says after he has warmed up to us over an extended photo session interspersed by bantering. He does not elaborate on that. He needn’t.
Sushil Kumar is aiming for Gold at Rio. For those who doubt his commitment perhaps his words will suffice: “It feels weird when you hear things like these. I compete for the country. I have never run after money. I can’t shut people up physically. But I am working hard so that I win another medal. I am at that level now where I feel I can do it again. I don’t want to just participate in an Olympics, I have been at three already, but the plan is to win a medal for the country. I have been away from my house for over a year now, it is a penance. It is a big thing.”
It’s indeed a big thing. Sushil Kumar is one of the brightest stars in our nation’s sporting firmament. He spells a new kind of athlete that is largely alien to this country. The kind that does not rest on past laurels, the kind that looks to redefine the accepted norm for sporting excellence. It’s not just that Sushil is looking to win again, more importantly, he is not afraid of failing. That takes some doing.
The author tweets as @SukhwantBasra