As far as respect goes, Sushil Kumar perhaps has the most of it in Indian wrestling circles. He should, as well, given the fact that he is India’s only two-time Olympic medallist (individual events).
But last year, the same word caused him much trouble. His opponents refused to wrestle him at the senior national championships in Indore as a show of respect and gave him walkovers.
A year later, it is the Wrestling Federation of India that is talking about showing the 35-year-old “respect” and perhaps bending its own rules to accommodate him in the top bracket of central contracts.
A month back, the WFI had announced that it will hand out central contracts to wrestlers and place them in different categories. Sushil, originally, got category ‘B’.
Three wrestlers – Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Pooja Dhanda – were included in category ‘A’ for an annual assistance of Rs 30 lakhs. Sushil and Sakshi Malik, the two Olympic medallists from India, were handed the ‘B’ contract owing to their recent form.
But on Wednesday. the WFI upgraded both Sushil and Sakshi’s contract to ‘A’ category.
“Sushil has won two Olympic medals, while Sakshi opened India’s medal account in Rio. It was a mistake on our part that they were kept in Grade B and today we are correcting that mistake,” WFI president Brij Bhusan Saran Singh said while announcing the change in category.
The idea of the central contracts was “to provide monetary support to all wrestlers” who can achieve Olympic success. Moreover, junior and cadet level wrestlers were also included so that they can continue getting support in case they had no sponsor.
WFI now says that they made a mistake by putting Sushil in the ‘B’ level contract and it meant “disrespect to the player.”
Earlier, the federation had decided to put the current best performing wrestlers in Grade A for which Sushil did not qualify. “The first decision was based on current performances but then Sushil and Sakshi aren’t small stature wrestlers,” a WFI official told Scroll.in.
There is no denying the fact that Sushil and Sakshi have brought laurels for the country in the Olympics and should be shown the respect they deserve. But central contracts should be all about current performances and that is where Sushil and Sakshi have been found wanting.
The WFI president had given a similar justification for having Sushil in the central contract list and has said they would review the performances of the wrestlers for an year and reserves the right to change the category of any wrestler at the end of one year contract.
“Sushil Kumar is an Olympian and despite his low participation, he is the wrestler who brought Indian wrestling to its feet again with two medals at the Olympics. He deserves this. Sakshi has had some up and down performances but this can be upgraded if she performs well,” WFI president Brij Bhusan Saran Singh had said then.
A look at Sushil’s performance since the 2012 London Olympics throw up interesting numbers.
In the last six years, Sushil has competed in a total of six tournaments internationally. Two of them were back in 2014. Last year, he only participated in Commonwealth Championships where he won the gold medal. But the competition level there is even less than the national level in India.
Same goes for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
In the two tournaments with strong international field in 2018 – the Tbilisi Grand Prix and the Asian Games – Sushil lost in the first round.
So why is WFI willing to pay his Rs 30 lakh for the next one year? “Since he is competing, so we had to consider him. Giving Rs 20 lakh rupees more (for him and Sakshi) doesn’t cost WFI much,” the WFI official says.
But central contracts cannot be handed out like that. And if only competing was the criteria, half of the national champions in 2018 should be considered as well.
While Sushil, who did not even participate in the last month’s national championships, gets such a big amount based on his reputation, 2018 national champions Harphool (61kg), Rajneesh (70kg), Amit Dhankar (74kg), Pawan of Railways (86kg) do not get a single penny. And so do 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Geeta Phogat and two-time Commonwealth gold medallist Babita.
Even Sakshi has been below par since her 2016 Rio Olympics bronze and failed to win a medal even at the Asian Games this year. But her upgradation can probably be justified as she grabbed the national crown this year and her performance graph has shown an upward trend in 2018 after a dismal 2017.
Sushil’s, however, is a slightly different case. At 35, he not getting any younger and has struggled to even be competitive at the world stage in the 74 kg category and is likely to find it difficult to even qualify for Tokyo Olympics on current performance.
The step to bring out central contracts should be hailed as it will not only motivate younger wrestlers, they will get support while growing up the ranks.
But there is no justification for the decision to upgrade Sushil just because he has to be shown “respect”.