Wrestlers participate in the 65th Senior Men Free Wrestling Championship at Noida Stadium.(ANI Photo)
Wrestlers participate in the 65th Senior Men Free Wrestling Championship at Noida Stadium.(ANI Photo)

Wrestlers glad as competition resumes, eye Olympic berths

  • For the 250-odd participants, it was a new lifeline. They had people cheering for them from the stands but repeated appeals for wearing masks and social distancing had no takers. There were no marked zones, no bio-secure area for wrestlers and coaches in the indoor arena.
By Avishek Roy
UPDATED ON JAN 25, 2021 11:32 AM IST

One can’t be blamed for mistaking the national wrestling championships, the first major domestic competition in an Olympic sport after a year, as a series of felicitation functions. The procession of dignitaries streaming into the Noida Indoor Stadium, the venue, was endless on Sunday. Turbans and shawls were wrapped on local leaders, administrators and 'pehelwans' through the day even as the main actors, the wrestlers, competed in two mats at the centre. At times, wrestling looked a mere sideshow.

For the 250-odd participants, it was a new lifeline. They had people cheering for them from the stands as is expected in wrestling competitions in northern India. Repeated appeals for wearing masks and social distancing had no takers. There were no marked zones, no bio-secure area for wrestlers and coaches in the indoor arena. But then nobody cared or complained. The only COVID rules followed were referees wearing face shields, and the wrestlers and coaches coming after a negative RT-PCR test.

The Wrestling Federation of India has split the nationals—freestyle, Greco-Roman and women—to be held in different cities on different dates.

The euphoria at the two-day freestyle nations appeared a celebration of the return of domestic competition, and end to the uncertainty that had loomed since last year’s lockdown and strict rules that barred sparring for a contact sport. It has played havoc with their techniques and physical conditioning. Their dream of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics has been revived.

“It was very important for internal competition to start. We had no plans, no targets during the last one year,” says Satyawart Kadian, India’s top contender for an Olympics qualification berth in 97kg, who won the national crown on Sunday.

“The wrestlers have gone through a very tough time. We were not able to train with restrictions in place. Only those who had their partners could train in some akhadas. It was mostly individual training. We have started full-fledged training now,” he says.

Kadian is fortunate to have his own training centre in Rohtak, where he and wife Sakshi Malik, the Rio Olympics bronze medallist, have been training. But with no competition, it was not easy to stay motivated.

That reflected in the results at last month’s Individual World Cup in Serbia, where India won one medal. Kadian returned empty-handed. “Every country was well prepared in the World Cup because they have Tokyo Olympics in mind. The quarantine period is the most difficult in training camps. You are just locked in a room, can’t do any training. It is good the vaccine has come; now these rules must end,” he says.

Pradeep, who won the 79kg bronze, says he hardly had partners to train with at his Sonepat home. “Most of us have not had good mat training and have lacked sparring. I wanted to change my weight and compete in 74kg and aim for an Olympic berth. After this competition, I will be up for it,” he says.

The poor conditioning of wrestlers showed at the nationals—a case in point being the most competitive 74kg (India is yet to earn a quota spot in the division) where little-known Sandeep Singh trumped a field of top names like Narsingh Yadav, Jitender Kumar, Amit Dhankar and Parveen Rana.

“Most of our wrestlers are lacking in power, strength, and most importantly mat training which could not happen even after the lockdown ended,” says Services coach Naresh Kumar Malhan.

“If you have the 74kg bout again, there might be a different winner. That is because when you play four-five bouts in a day, you have to have very good conditioning. Right now, they are at an equal level and any one can have a good day. This competition will help them assess (their level),” says the veteran coach.

Before the pandemic, Indian wrestling was on a high. For the first time, four wrestlers qualified for Olympics from the World Championships—Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya, Deepak Punia and Vinesh Phogat. All four follow their own training plans and were exempted from participating in the nationals. The last tournament held in India was the Asian Championships in February last year.

“Those who have qualified are doing their training but it was important to hold the nationals because we have not seen them for a year. We need to prepare the team for Olympics qualification, give them chance,” says WFI assistant secretary Vinod Tomar.

“The sports ministry and SAI have told us to follow all protocols. The federation and organisers have been taking all the steps—Covid tests, sanitising of mats, etc. We are asking fans to follow social distancing. But wrestling has returned after a long time and people are crazy about freestyle; they are just getting carried away,” he says.

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