Sushil Kumar is India’s most successful Olympian – the only one to win individual medals in two separate editions – in recent times. While there is little room to argue over that, the 34-year-old wrestler has now become one of the most polarising figure in his own sport thanks to the controversies that have dominated his return to competitive action in 2016.
It is an open secret that there is little love lost between the Wrestling Federation of India and the biggest brand in Indian wrestling and there seems to be a battle of one-upmanship brewing behind the curtains.
It all began with Sushil opting out of the first Pro Wrestling League apparently after being unhappy over the money he got from the tournament. There was a crescendo when the wrestling federation put its weight behind the now suspended Narsingh Yadav when the London Olympics silver medallist demanded a trial to decide India’s entry in the 74kg freestyle category for the Rio Games.
And the way things have unfolded in the last few months after Sushil made clear his intentions of playing the Commonwealth Games and went on to win the Nationals following three walkovers, the rift seems to be only widening.
The latest salvo in the battle was fired on Friday with the Times of India reporting that the federation may not send the 34-year-old to the Commonwealth Games if the Delhi Police file a chargesheet against him in the case involving the attack on fellow wrestler Parveen Rana during the selection trials for the Gold Coast Games.
Though no one is saying it openly yet, the feeling within the federation is that Sushil only wants to make a comeback because he can easily win the Commonwealth Games gold and get back the public support that he has probably lost during the Olympics controversy.
While a sportsperson of his calibre deserves that leeway if he can still demand a place in the Commonwealth Games on merit and wants to retire on a high, the federation knows that the two-time Olympic medallist is already a power centre in the wrestling community and could be a real challenge to the authority of current president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
To be fair to Sushil he has never openly expressed his desire to take over the reins of the federation in the future but there is no hiding from the fact that the 34-year-old’s clout has been growing in the political circles and those around him have been making the most of it.
It also helps that the Chhattrasal stadium akhada, which is the alma mater of Sushil and is run by his father-in-law Mahabali Satpal, has been producing majority of the top wrestling stars in India and thereby controls the narrative in the sport in North India.
Till recently, Sushil was also the National Observer and had given a scathing report on India’s preparation for the world championship earlier last year. He ultimately resigned over possible conflict of interest after he won the national title.
Those who have seen Sushil from his junior days insist that the wrestler hasn’t changed much, still works hard in training and is determined to give his best. But not everyone can vouch for the same simplicity in his other dealing with many complaining that meeting the man without his coterie has become next to impossible.
Rana, who has filed an FIR against Sushil’s supporters after his brother was beaten up following the trials, gave a glimpse of the Olympic medallist’s growing power when he expressed fear that he could be roughed up while crossing over from Delhi to his village as the toll booths are operated by the senior wrestler’s associates.
While no one can verify whether Sushil or any of his close associates control the toll booths, many in Delhi’s wrestling circle believe that it is the wrestler who runs the show.
Even in the School Games Federation of India, where Sushil is the president and Satpal the Patron-in-chief, there are murmurs about how the organisation is run with an iron hand but none would dare to come out and complain.
Even during the recent episode when a girl representing India drowned in Australia, the SGFI has remained mostly mum on the entire issue. And despite being the president, Sushil hasn’t even come out to make a statement.
However, the bigger mess, sources say, is in the selection of teams for most sports, with players from Delhi getting preference but everyone prefers to look the other way rather than irk those in power.
What has probably irked people the most is his handling of the entire fracas against Rana and also his comments suggesting that it was in the tradition of the sport that a wrestler of his calibre got three walkovers at the senior Nationals.
There is no doubt that this wasn’t the first such case in wrestling and even at the Nationals there were around 30 walkovers overall. Those supporting Sushil insist that the wrestler had not forced anyone to withdraw from the bouts and hence wasn’t at fault.
In his defence about the entire fracas over the Rana beating incident, Sushil has insisted that he had no reason to indulge in such activities since he had already won the bout and qualified for the Commonwealth Games.
Soon after the incident, even the WFI president had insisted that the fracas had happened outside the ring and it would be difficult to put the blame on Sushil, adding that the police would have to look into the matter.
While the police are still investigating the case, the comments sowing doubts about Sushil’s participation in the Commonwealth Games once again felt like there is an attempt to start a battle of perception just like when allegations flew about his involvement in the doping of Narsingh Yadav. That case is still being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation and it would be unfair on the decorated wrestler if the truth in both cases don’t come out soon enough.
But the way things have panned out, even if Sushil gets a clean chit in both the matters, it would be difficult to stop the chatter about how his political and personal clout has been increasing by the day and hence it is difficult to pin down the 34-year-old even outside the wrestling mat.
In the battle of perception, we may never come to know the complete truth. But as they say – Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion and Sushil is failing in this perception battle for now.