India’s campaign at the Asian Wrestling Championships came to an end on Sunday in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with the contingent returning with a total of eight medals - one gold and one silver to go with six bronze medals. It’s a slightly diminished return from the previous edition in New Delhi where the wrestlers - across formats - returned with India’s best overall medal tally of 10 medals since the turn of the century.
India’s medal haul in Bishkek was headlined by a surprise champion. The 28-year-old Navjot Kaur, unheralded in comparison to some of her peers at the event, became the first ever Indian woman to stand atop the podium at the Championships when she upset her Japanese opponent Miya Imai. It preserved India’s record of winning at least one gold medal at the event starting from 2016, when Sandeep Tomar won gold in the 57 kg freestyle category, followed by India’s next big hope, Bajrang Punia in Delhi last year. Punia, for his part, could only return with a bronze this year after a tough loss in the quarterfinal dashed his hopes of a repeat.
The significance of performing well at the Asian Championships, in a sport like wrestling, is multiplied by the fact that the continent is home to traditional wrestling powerhouses like Japan, Iran, China and South Korea - countries that are successful at the global stage. So any medal at the continental level for Indian wrestlers comes with more weightage than, say, a medal at the Commonwealth Games based on the sheer quality of competition.
Iran are the undoubted leaders when it comes to performance over the years. India rank 10th overall.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how India’s performance has been at the prestigious event over the years.
Freestyle - Men’s
This is the first version of the event that was kick started in 1979, two years before Greco-Roman and a good 17 years before women’s wrestling was made part of the championships. This has, traditionally, been India’s strong suit. The men who graduate from the dangals invariably graduate into freestyle wrestlers on the mats at the international level. By sheer volume of participation, men’s freestyle is India’s most populated category.
In the early days of the championships, Indian wrestlers enjoyed much more success than in recent days. 74 out of India’s overall count of 154 medals have come in the men’s freestyle category.
It is in this category, without a doubt, that the best of the best have emerged victorious as evident by 9 gold medals over the years - out of the 12 overall, across styles. Not surprisingly, Yogeshwar Dutt is the most successful wrestler - being the only man to win two gold medals (2008 and 2012, both Olympic years, incidentally). Sushil Kumar struck gold in 2010.
But given India’s reputation in this category, the return of just two bronze medals in 2018 is a cause for concern.
‘Greco-Roman is not India’s cup of tea’ is a common belief in the wrestling circles. Despite being a part of the continental championships since 1981, only 38 out of India’s overall 154 medals have come in the Greco-Roman category. After initial success, there have been many a barren year for India’s Greco-Roman wrestlers.
Recently, however, there is a slow uptick in the number with at least two medals in 4 of the last 5 editions. In 2018, the Greco-Roman wrestlers matched the output of the freestyle wrestlers, although that’s more damning of the latter contingent considering we are talking about two bronze medals.
India’s women wrestlers started winning medals at the Asian Championships in 2001 (when Sunita Sharmaa bagged silver in Ulanbataar in the 56 kg category) and in a matter of 17 years, have already won more medals than Greco-Roman wrestlers through the years - 42 out of the overall 154 medals have been won by women.
The women have also won at least four medals in four of the last five championships. But the wait for the first gold medal was over only in Bishkek in 2018 when Kaur broke a glass ceiling of sorts. With the likes of Vinesh Phogat and Divya Kakran still young, and already owners of silver medals, still around in their prime this trend could only continue and augurs well for the Asian Games later this year.