How long have Indians been wrestling? The Mahabharata vividly describes the contest between Bhima and Jarasandha. The sport was known as malla yudha in ancient days. There are many tales of wrestlers in Indian history and wrestling's popularity as a sport.
Wrestling also happens to be the discipline that gave India its first individual Olympic medal - KD Jadhav's bronze in Helsinki in 1952. Ten years later, at the fourth Asian Games, seven Indian wrestlers bagged 12 medals between them. India also hosted the world championship, in New Delhi in 1967.
Can the wrestlers emulate or better Jadhav’s showing in Beijing? Although India are sending three entries — Yogeshwar Dutt (60kg), Sushil Kumar (66kg), Rajiv Tomar (120kg) — after fielding six in the previous edition of the Games, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is optimistic.
“We could earn just three berths this time, but the point to note is that all these came from the major qualifying events, where the world’s best were competing,” said Olympian and WFI general secretary Kartar Singh. “And two of our wrestlers, Sushil and Yogeshwar, were at the Olympics in 2004. That experience should help them do better.”
Regarding their training, chief coach PR Sondhi said, “We have just returned from Belarus where we had a seven-day training-cum-competition stint. We have a two-week training programme in Cuba (which is currently underway). It’s not sufficient and it’s the only factor worrying us.”
The coach too was pinning hopes on Sushil and Yogeshwar. “Technique-wise, our wrestlers can match the best.
The area we are behind is power and we are working on that. In the smaller weight categories, the speed factor counts more and Sushil and Yogeshwar are very fast. I am praying that they get a good draw.”
This will be his second Olympic appearance and this time, he is participating in the 60kg category after having taken part in 55kg in Athens. He had lost to his Japanese opponent in the first round. We can expect a better show this time because he earned his berth by winning gold in the Asian championship. In the final, he beat a Japanese, who had won bronze in the world championship. “The gold medal and the win against the world championship bronze medallist gave me a lot of confidence,” said the 2006 Asian Games bronze medallist who finished fifth in the world championship in the same year.
Sushil too is participating in a different category — 66kg — after trying his luck in 60kg in Athens, where he lost to a Cuban in the second round after defeating a Bulgarian. He is the only Indian this time to have qualified from the world championship, where he finished seventh. Sushil carried that form into the Asian meet and won the bronze medal.
In Beijing, he will face stiff competition from Turkish, Cuban, Russian, Iranian and Ukrainian wrestlers. “I have defeated eight of the Beijing-bound wrestlers in my category. The rest I have not seen. So a lot depends on the draw,” said Sushil.
The Delhi wrestler sealed his place by winning the silver medal in the first qualifiers in Switzerland. He was off the mat for three years due to a knee injury and could not participate in any of the Asian or world meets at the senior level, so the pressure of competing at the highest level will be there. “My practice is going as per schedule. I am working hard to build stamina and strength. I am definitely going to give my best,” said the 27-year-old.