Ravi Kumar Dahiya gave two-time world champion Zaur Uguev from Russia a proper fight in the final of the men’s 57kg wrestling bout. It wasn’t to be for him in the end, but he picked up a silver medal at the end of a remarkable debut campaign at the Tokyo Olympics. Who is going to forget that comeback in the semi-final anytime soon?
For thousands of hockey fans alive today, a medal at the Olympics was hearsay. Stories they grew up with. Chapters in school books. Videos on YouTube. But today, they witnessed a thriller unfold in front of their own eyes, a medal earned in the most dramatic fashion to end a 41-year wait.
It is easy to write about the winners, right? Natural to revel in their success? It should be a day of joy... where all of us feel nothing but exhilaration. A day where India got one step closer to their best ever performance at the Olympic Games. Two medals in a day for India... at the Olympic Games. There have been entire editions in the past with fewer.
A day to send virtual hugs to your fellow sports fans.
A day to rejoice...
...yet, there is a sense of void.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way for Vinesh Phogat.
Heartbreak, from Rio to Tokyo
Phogat’s journey to Tokyo in itself was one of remarkable courage and class. Five years ago in Rio she gave Indian fans a moment they would not forget, but not in a nice way. The aerial shot of Vinesh Phogat lying on the mat in pain is something no one who witnessed can erase from memory. She had to forfeit after a serious knee injury during her bout against Sun Yanan of China (the country from which the most recent heartbreak would come, more on that later) in the quarterfinals.
It wasn’t to be in Rio but she picked herself up, stitched herself together into a leaner, meaner wrestling machine. She quickly rose to the position of the country’s star wrestler with consistent international success.
“Casting my mind back five years, I wasn’t even sure whether I would be able to get on to the mat again. The injury in Rio was easily one of the lowest moments in my career, and even had me questioning whether I would ever be able to wrestle again. Giving up though is something that has luckily never crossed my mind. Yes, I had doubts about whether my body would heal and allow me to get on to the mat, but I was absolutely sure that I was never going to spare any effort towards rebuilding myself and then let my body decide,” she added.
And here she was in Tokyo as the top seed. A position she earned through an undefeated run in the few international events she competed in this year, including an Asian Championships gold.
Her draw, however, was not the kindest. The women’s 53kg is one of the toughest in the sport, loaded with quality wrestlers across the board. Being the top seed ensured she would avoid the other favourite Mayu Mukaida till the final but she was scheduled to face two former world champions in her first two rounds. The early bouts are where wrestlers look to pace themselves and ease into the competition that is extremely intense on their physique. But there was no easing in for Phogat here in Tokyo.
Two tough bouts
The first match was against Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson, the Rio 2016 bronze medallist and a former world champion in a different weight category. A winnable bout for sure but a tough one and it was evident from the word go. The Swedish grappler went hard at Phogat and the commentator was amazed at how, despite working so hard against the Indian, she was trailing 0-5 at the end of the first period. It was a marker from Phogat that she was in control. A 7-2 win. We move.
Then came Belarusian Vanesa Kaladzinskaya, the 2017 World Champion and 2020 European Champion. A win here would have earned Phogat a sureshot chance at fighting for a medal. But she was under pressure right away. At 2-5 down, Phogat came out storming at her opponent in the second period and looked destined to close the gap down. “Great defending by Kaladzinskaya but she is going to concede here surely,” was how the commentator put it and he wasn’t alone in thinking that.
We waited. We waited some more. But the Belarusian simply wouldn’t budge. With all her upper body strength, she held strong. For a few seconds, it was an unstoppable force versus an immovable object. Kaladzinskaya even turned it around to make the scoreboard read 7-2 briefly but a good review from the Indian camp brought the score back to 3-5. Time was still running out for the Indian and the pressure to attack at the end turned into a rare defeat by fall.
For the second time in two Olympics, Phogat lay there on the mat on her back. This time her opponent was jumping in joy at a deserved win, but the feeling for Phogat – pain aside – was similar to the one in Rio. Down in the quarterfinals.
But she wasn’t out. Not yet. Kaladzinskaya had shown enough in this bout to make us think she had one more win in her to defeat Qianyu Pang of China next. That would make Phogat active again.
And so we turned our affinities towards Belarus. We willed her on against Pang, we saw she was leading 2-0... slender lead, but her superb defence was coming to the fore again just as it did against Phogat. Clock winding down. It may not have been the gold or silver we hoped, but fighting for bronze would still represent a successful campaign for Phogat. We are nearly there. A minute left... 30 seconds... 20... but with 10 to go, Pang made a move at Kaladzinskaya’s legs that gave her two points and a win by criteria.
For the second time in two Olympics, Phogat’s Olympics dreams were over at the hands of a Chinese wrestler.
You do not have to be a sports fan to understand this heartbreak. You do not have to be a wrestling fan, who understands how points are awarded in a bout or what repechage is, to realise the enormity of this disappointment. What Olympians do in their day-to-day journey is incredible and takes the strongest resolve that sets them apart but at the end of day, it is just a human journey.
The elite athletes are all wired differently, but like the good folks at Pixar beautifully told us through Inside Out, the human brain is ultimately an eclectic mixture of joy, anger, disgust, fear... and sadness. No moment of joy can truly be felt if we did not experience what sadness felt like. An athlete’s journey has the core emotions, perhaps on a different scale, that make them feel the same things we do. And in that journey, joy doesn’t always drive you forward.
Phogat experienced her quota of sadness in Rio... and Tokyo was meant to be the stage where the protagonist puts it behind her and looks forward to a new chapter as an athlete with renewed hope. On a day India won two different medals and came seconds away from winning a third, it is hard not to feel heartbroken for an athlete who deserved a better chapter in her journey. A happier chapter. But unlike an animated movie that is scripted to make you feel good, life doesn’t play out that way. Not always.
And as we celebrate Dahiya’s silver and the men’s hockey team’s bronze, as we should, it is hard to escape a deep sense of disappointment for what a truly world class athlete endured at the biggest stage.