Wrestling had lost much of its popularity in recent years. While the WFI’s fiasco in the selection between Narsingh Yadav and Sushil Kumar for India’s squad to the Rio Olympics didn’t do the sport any favours, India’s failure to win any medals at 2016 Wrestling World Championships also contributed to a fall in popularity.
Combined with the meteoric rise of athletes like Dipa Karmakar and PV Sindhu in other disciplines, it seemed as if wrestling would gradually fade out with the departure of Sushil, Narsingh and Geeta Phogat. However, Sakshi Malik put such fears to rest with a scintillating performance to win bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now, it seems that a younger, fresher batch of wrestling talents will defend India’s glory at the 2017 World Championships in Paris this week.
The initial days of the tournament spelt disappointment with wrestlers like Hardeep Singh, Ravinder Khatri, Gurpreet Singh, and Yogesh crashing out on Day 1. Day 2 proved to be no better. On Day 2, the Greco-Roman squad, Gyanendra, Ravinder, Harpreet Singh, and Naveen lost their respective bouts. The medal drought continued with Lalita, Pooja Dhanda, Shilpi and Pooja putting up a dispirited display on Day 3. Is that set for a change now?
Foremost among the men’s freestyle wrestlers will be Bajrang Punia, in the 65kg category. His gold medal at the Asian Championships at New Delhi in May this year offers us ample proof of the momentum he has gathered this year since cementing a regular spot in the Indian squad. He will be further advantaged by the fact that all the medallists in his weight class at the Rio Olympics are no longer his competitors at the Paris Worlds.
However, another serious contender will be Zurabi Iakobishvili of Georgia, a quarterfinalist at the Rio Olympics who won a gold medal in the 70kg division at the Ziolkowski Memorial last month. With Punia’s experience of winning bronze at the Budapest World Championships in 2013, wrestling fans will fully expect him not to buckle under the pressure and put in a decent performance to add to India’s 11 medals at various editions of the World Championships over the last few years.
This tournament could also be an opportunity for Bajrang to carve his name into the pages of history, as he will become the country’s only multiple World Championship medal winner if he does manage a podium finish at the Lutte 2017. In the lightest weight category for the World Championships competes Sandeep Tomar, who was in blistering form last year, winning gold at the Singapore Commonwealth Wrestling Championships and the Bangkok Asian Championships. One can easily expect a medal from him if Tomar manages to replicate the performance which won him a place in the Indian contingent to Rio last year.
More interestingly, the women’s draw at Paris will feature two of India’s brightest medal prospects: Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik. While Bollywood might have popularised Vinesh’s surname, her performances speak for themselves. Before suffering a horrifying injury which ruled her out of the Rio Olympics and almost ended her career,
Vinesh had already made a name for herself with gold at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and silver at the 2015 Doha Asian Championships, both in the 48kg weight category. Her return from injury was complicated by the fact that she had to compete in a higher weight category at the 2017 New Delhi Asian Championships, despite which she won a silver medal in the 55kg category.
She will be returning to her favoured 48kg category in the World Championships this week and will be a force to reckon with. She is surely one of the sure shot contenders for a podium finish in Paris and will be the favourite of many fans along with her good friend Sakshi Malik, who captured the national attention with a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. Following that up with a silver medal in the 60kg category at the New Delhi Asian Championships in May, Sakshi is fit and raring to go.
The two women, who often participate as sparring partners to each other during training sessions and have spent virtually their entire careers side by side, herald the dawn of a new generation in women’s wrestling in India. The fact that they both hail from the state of Haryana, infamous for its conservative attitude towards women, is both a promise of greater emerging talent and a beacon of inspiration for amateur women wrestlers who wish to take up the sport professionally and make a name for themselves beyond their homes.
That Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik will be India’s brightest medal prospects at the Paris World Championships this week is beyond question. Their talent is undoubtedly brilliant, and they have built up momentum for themselves heading into this tournament. Can they script a new chapter in India’s illustrious history of wrestling?