Tokyo Olympics: Bajrang Punia controls hurt pride, seals bronze

  • Bajrang Punia showed his class and stamped his authority, beating Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan 8-0 to win the 65kg freestyle bronze medal bout.
Bajrang Punia reacts after his win over Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov. (Getty Images)
Bajrang Punia reacts after his win over Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov. (Getty Images)
Published on Aug 07, 2021 10:48 PM IST
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ByRutvick Mehta, New Delhi

Standing on the podium step with his fellow bronze winner, Bajrang Punia picked up the medal from the tray, put it around his neck, and immediately lifted it with both hands. He examined one side of the medal, then flipped it, and stared at it for a couple of seconds before letting it rest on his stomach.

It was not the medal — and indeed the position in which he was standing on the podium — that the star wrestler had envisioned before landing for the Tokyo Games. It was a medal nonetheless; a bronze in what was the 27-year-old’s first taste of the Olympics stage.

An uncharacteristically subdued Punia fought all his three bouts on Friday with a strapping on the right knee for an injury he picked up around a month ago. On Saturday evening, he walked into the mat without one. The knee was unshackled; the wrestler unfettered. Punia showed his class and stamped his authority, beating Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan 8-0 to win the 65kg freestyle bronze medal bout.

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It was a different Punia to the one that showed up in the semi-final barely 24 hours ago, outclassed by Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev 12-5 in a largely one-sided battle. This was a lot like the Punia we’ve known in recent years; a lot like the Punia who entered the Olympics as the world No. 1 and looked every bit like one in the months leading up to it while winning gold in the Rome Ranking Series and silver at the Asian championships; this was a lot like the Punia that was primed for glory at the Games as the only Indian wrestler to have delivered three medals at world championships.

“I am not happy. This is not the result I had set out to achieve. Winning an Olympic medal is no mean achievement but I can’t jump with joy with bronze,” Punia was quoted as saying by PTI.

The bronze bout was a potentially tricky one for the Indian. Niyazbekov is a two-time worlds medal winner. The second was a silver in the 2019 edition in Nur-Sultan, where he defeated Punia in a high-tempered, high-scoring, close and controversial semi-final contest. On Saturday, however, there was no controversy on who the dominant wrestler was.

If Punia erred on the side of caution in the semi-final against Aliev, he switched to attack mode against Niyazbekov. After a couple of minutes of sussing each other out, with Punia looking to find openings, he got his first point on account of the Kazakh’s passivity. Niyazbekov then had Punia in a headlock, but he got out of it neatly. With 20 seconds on the clock for the first three minutes, Punia went for Niyazbekov’s legs, and moments later pushed, him out of the yellow zone with a clever change of direction to earn another point.

After the break, Punia continued to target the right leg of the Kazakh, who was defending well. But Punia was orchestrating all the attacks; Niyazbekov was busy thwarting them. At some point, the floodgates had to open. And they did.

Going for his susceptible right leg again, Punia finally executed a take down for a 4-0 lead. Niyazbekov then tried to target Punia’s legs, but the Indian turned the move into a brilliant counter-attack, this time grabbing his rival’s left leg and collecting two points with under a minute left in the bout. By then it was clear the tide had turned, and with two more points — again, by grabbing Niyazbekov’s right leg — Punia brought the medal to the shore.

It gave India its second medal from wrestling in Tokyo after Ravi Dahiya’s gutsy silver, matching the sport’s most productive showing at the 2012 London Games. Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt had won silver and bronze, respectively, nine years ago. All four of these men are products of the famed Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi, where Punia spent several years after being enrolled over a decade ago, and found a mentor in Dutt.

In his Khudan village in Haryana, his father Balwan Singh had, boldly and confidently, predicted Punia’s victory before the bout. The son ensured he stayed true to his father’s words. “We told him to not feel disheartened (after the semi-final loss) and keep his focus,” Singh told reporters. “He assured us that he will bring a medal.”

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Thursday, December 02, 2021