For Bajrang Punia, pain has been a constant theme in Tokyo. He came to the Japanese capital with an injured knee. He played all the bouts knowing he could never really give his best and will leave the city with the injury probably having got worse after all the pressure he put on it.
Punia though will leave with a medal, but not the one that he wanted. He came here for gold and will leave with bronze. More pain.
“I am upset that I couldn’t fulfil the nation’s expectations,” was one of the first things Punia said when he spoke to reporters in India in virtual interaction.
Punia isn’t someone who is satisfied easily. He has strong reasons for being that way. He is a three-time world championship medallist, a two-time Asian champion and was seeded second in Tokyo. But in his first Olympics, he couldn’t return empty-handed.
“My doctor asked me to return to India for treatment but I didn’t want to take any risks with Covid-19 so close to Olympics. It was going to be my first Games, so I had to be ready for it,” he said.
However, Punia had to stay away from the mat for 25 days to be able to compete in Tokyo. It robbed him of crucial preparation time and when he stepped onto the mat at the Olympics, his movement lacked the sharpness.
“Before a big tournament like Olympics, preparation is everything. I spent 25 days away from the mat and that definitely hampered my performances in Tokyo,” he said.
Punia had a strapping on his knee for his first three bouts. He wasn’t comfortable with it but given the status of his injury, he had little choice.
“The tapes on my knee made it harder for me on the mat but my physio told me that if I played without it, the injury could have got worse. I couldn’t take that risk in the first two-three bouts, so I played on,” Punia said.
The Indian had a huge scare in the first round against Kyrgystan’s Ernazar Ekmataliev where he won on criteria. Then he was in trouble against Iran’s Cheka Ghiasa, trailing 1-2 and needed a moment of brilliance to pin his opponent. However, in the semi-final against Haji Aliyev, Punia couldn’t pull off another trick as he lost 12-5.
Punia was devastated and didn’t want to speak with anyone. He went to bed immediately after the bout but could barely sleep.
It was the conversation with his parents that lifted his mood.
“I didn’t tell my parents about my injury. But they must have seen it during bouts. After I lost they told me that we know that your knee is not at all fine and for us, a bronze would be as good as a gold,” he said.
It was the last chance of winning a medal in Tokyo and he didn’t want to let it go.
“One mistake is enough to cost you your Olympic dreams. And once you are out you don’t get a chance for four more years,” he said.
“I felt injury can be healed later, but medal had to be won now. So, I requested my doctor to let me play without tapes and let me give my absolute best,” he added.
Punia did exactly that and thumped Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov 8-0 in the bronze medal bout.
Even if the injury had hurt his chances of winning a historic gold, Punia battled hard, gained control over his emotions and brought all his experience into play to win a precious bronze medal for India.
Now, Punia is already looking forward to the World Championships in October. He has his sights set on Paris 2024, probably on gold at Paris 2024.
“We have the world championship in October. Next year we have the CWG and the Asian Games. I have missed the gold medal now but will work on my weaknesses and try to get a top finish in Paris,” he said.
On India’s performance at Tokyo Olympics, Punia said the efforts over the last decade had yielded a record haul at the Olympics, but there was work to be done.
“There needs to be more competitions and opportunities at school and university level. If we can really focus on that age group, we will win even more medals,” he added.