Vinesh, Aman to lead India's charge in Bishkek - Hindustan Times

Vinesh, Aman to lead India's charge in Bishkek

Apr 18, 2024 10:53 PM IST

Indian wrestling will hope to take a small but significant step towards redemption when the 17-strong contingent takes the mat at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers

Around the same time last year, when three of India's most celebrated wrestlers began the second phase of their protest against then Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, few would have envisaged the ripple effect it would have on the fortunes of wrestling itself. With less than 100 days to go for the Olympics and only a solitary quota to show, Indian wrestling will hope to take a small but significant step towards redemption when the 17-strong contingent takes the mat at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers that begin in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Friday.

Wrestler Vinesh Phogat (HT_PRINT)
Wrestler Vinesh Phogat (HT_PRINT)

The competition will offer 36 quotas -- two in each of the 18 weight classes -- across freestyle, women, and Greco Roman divisions. The two finalists in each weight category will earn a ticket to Paris for their countries. There will neither be any gold and bronze-medal bouts nor a repechage.

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The qualifiers will also mark the return of double World Championships bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat to international competitions after 19 months. Her last international appearance was at the 2022 World Championships in Serbia while much of her 2023 was spent taking on the might of former WFI boss Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Phogat entered the Budapest Ranking Series last July but withdrew on the eve of competition citing fever and food poisoning.

Since then, the 29-year-old has won the Nationals (55kg) as well as the selection trials for Olympic qualifiers while choosing to forego her pet 53kg class. India already has a quota in that weight category through Antim Panghal, and Phogat, desperate for a third Olympic appearance and unsure of weather WFI will conduct a final selection trial, moved to the lighter weight class. Before the trials in Patiala where she competed in both 50kg and 53kg events -- she tanked the 53kg semifinal -- Phogat's last appearance in the 50kg bracket was back in 2019.

With her maintenance weight usually around 55kg, it will be a monumental task for the seasoned wrestler to retain her strength while cutting weight. The run-up to the competition also saw Phogat taking to social media to complain about the delay in accreditation to her persoanl coach Woller Akos and physiotherapist. That issue has now been resolved, and a favourable draw in Bishkek means she will have very little to complain about.

With Japan, China and Mongolia having already secured a quota at last year's World Championships, the only real challenge Phogat is likely to encounter is from Asian Games silver medalist from North Kotrrea, Son Hyang Kim. Phogat would remember her from the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018 where the two were pitted in opposite brackets. While the North Korean lost her semi-final to Japan's Yuki Irie, Phogat, then at the peak of her powers, had beaten Irie to claim the gold medal.

Besides Hyang Kim, Uzbekistan's Aktenge Keunimjaeva, the Hangzhou Asian Games bronze medallist, will also be a challenger.

Tokyo Olympian Anshu Malik (57kg) will be another Indian to watch out for. Brimming with confidence after a fruitful training stint in Japan, Malik has regularly outsmarted the experienced Sarita Mor in domestic meets. In the 76kg division, under-23 world champion Reetika will be up against top-seed Asian Games bronze medalist from China Juan Wang two-time world silver medalist (72kg) Zhamila Bakbergenova of Kazakhstan.

The men's hopes will be led by Asian champion Aman Sehrawat in the 57kg division who edged out Olympics silver medallist Ravi Dahiya in the selection trial. Known for his nimble footwork and mat awareness, Aman is likely to face a stiff test from Uzbekistan's Gulomjon Abdullaev.

Aman, it is learnt, is carrying a niggle in his groin and hamstring. "He is fit to compete but he is not 100 percent. He experienced some discomfort in his groin and hamstring last week during a training session which also affected his training. But we are confident that he will come home with a Paris quota," Aman's coach at Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium, Lalit Kumar, said.

Sujeet Kalkal (65kg) and Deepak Punia's (86kg) participation remains a mystery as the duo is currently stranded at Dubai International Airport. Scheduled to reach Bishkek on Tuesday evening, their connecting flight was cancelled for two successive days due to unprecedented rains in Dubai, forcing them to spend two nights at the airport.

Kalkal and Punia are expected to board for Bishkek late on Thursday. They will than rush to the competition venue for weigh-in before starting their quest for the quotas.

"It's far from ideal, but I am sure they will give their best. They are trying their best to make the weight and stay in a positive frame of mind," Kumar said.

The Bishkek tourney is the last continental qualifier for the Olympics. Overall, it is the penultimate chance for wrestlers to seal Paris berths for their nations. The World Qualification Tournament, scheduled next month in Turkey, will be the last wrestling qualifier.

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