India bagged two gold medals from the wrestling mat in the Asian Games for the first time since the 1978 edition in Bangkok and that should be a reason enough to celebrate.
But a closer look at the overall performance of the contingent reveals that the two gold medals earned by Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have only helped masked the problems in Indian wrestling.
Apart from the final, Bajrang dominated the Men’s 65kg category winning all the earlier bouts by technical superiority while Vinesh was equally dominant in her triumph in the women’s 50kg category.
But for these two wrestlers, almost all others including two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar struggled to string together commendable results and only Divya Kakran managed to bag a bronze medal for the country through repechage.
In the last edition in Incheon, India managed to win a total of five medals including just one gold and one can argue that many other wrestlers came close to the bronze medal and were unlucky to lose in the play-off bouts. But that would just be an attempt to find a silver lining in an otherwise below-par performance since most of these wrestlers were comfortably outplayed in the medal bout and would struggle to string together any meaningful results in the World Championship in October on current form.
So what exactly is ailing Indian wrestling? In the words of a foreign coach, who doesn’t want to be identified, the real problem is the short term focus of top wrestlers and their liking for easy rewards.
“World over, the top wrestlers only play one or two major tournaments and look to peak in them. But in India, due to the financial rewards associated with the medals, they want to play every tournaments including the Commonwealth championship and others and hence don’t get enough time to build on their strength and strategy,” he added.
The case of Sakshi Malik is the perfect example of how she probably let her focus slip after winning the Rio Olympics bronze medal. The wrestler needed almost an year to regroup. During that period, she put on weight and had to go up a weight category and managed to win a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and the Asian championship in New Delhi before that.
She has been working hard over her fitness and technical abilities for the last few months but it will definitely take time for her to get back to the levels she was in 2016.
Over the years, Wrestling Federation has been fielding top guns like Sushil Kumar, Bajrang and others for the Commonwealth championships and Commonwealth Games where there is hardly any competition and the right way forward would have been to groom the second rung by giving them exposure in such low-key events.
Instead, even Sushil had been guilty of opting to play in these tournaments and skipping other major events since he moved up to the 74kg weight category after bagging the 2012 London Olympics silver in the 66kg category.
After losing in the very first bout in Jakarta to Bahrain’s Adam Baritov, Sushil told reporters that it was the lack of match practice that hurt him and he would not try to get more competitive experience. “I did not expect this. I did not have any big competition under my belt and that was the main reason for my defeat. But it’s part of sport. I will train harder and come back,” Sushil was quoted as saying.
But the 35-year-old did not explain what has stopped him from participating in more Grand Prix or international competitions abroad to get match practice when he had been training in Georgia for the last few years.
After the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games in which he was given an entry without trials, Sushil has hardly played any trials or major tournaments citing injuries and pulled out of the Asian Championship as well earlier this year but reported fit for the Commonwealth Games.
The federation, then, went out of its way to give a direct entry to the likes of Sushil, Bajrang, Vinesh and Malik in the Asian Games without the mandatory trials on the basis of their performance in Gold Coast and their past reputation. While Sushil and Malik failed to win a medal, the others bagged the gold.
The one thing common about the two gold medallists was that they were willing to come out of their comfort zone and look at the bigger picture.
Vinesh went about looking for a coach who could help her sort out the little problems that were holding her back and went all the way to Hungary to work with Woller Akos and the work she did with him showed in the way she handled her Japanese opponent in the final.
Bajrang, on the other hand, has been working towards a singular goal of booking the Tokyo Olympics berth through the world championship and was prepared to forego a medal at the Asian Games if that would have hurt his preparations for the worlds.
While the two turned out to be the saving grace for freestyle wrestlers, the Greco Roman ones barely managed to make an impact with only Harpreet Singh reaching the bronze medal play-off through repechage.
India has never been a force in Greco Roman with freestyle wrestlers who fail to make an impact taking up this discipline, their performance hardly came as a surprise. The federation has been trying its best to change that scenario by introducing Greco Roman wrestling at the school and university tournaments but there is still a long way to go.
But that cannot be the case with freestyle wrestling. And with just two years left for the Tokyo Olympics, its time the other wrestlers also follow the lead of Bajrang and Vinesh. The Federation also needs to look beyond the traditional systems and get the other wrestlers out of their comfort zone and plan things a bit differently.