For what it’s worth, the Asian Championships in New Delhi which begins on Tuesday is just another event for most wrestlers who are more focused on the Olympic qualifying than winning medals.
In an Olympic year, most of them only aim to peak at Olympic qualifiers and use the rest of the meets just for preparation. An Asian meet a month before continental qualifiers therefore makes little sense.
For Indian wrestlers, the Asian Championships will however be of utmost importance not only because they are playing at home, but it will also decide the fate of many before the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.
Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik has been India’s top wrestler in 62 kg category. But in the selection trials, she suffered a shock defeat to Sonam Malik, a two-time cadet world champion. Sakshi Malik now has jumped to 65 kg for the Asian Championships.
A medal for Sakshi Malik will earn her a right to have another trial for the qualifiers.
“If I lost, it doesn’t mean I’ll sit at home. I have to try and win a medal and then I can ask for a trial,” she said. “I will get the confidence from this tournament.”
Sakshi Malik has had a slump in form since the Asian Games in 2018. She has failed to medal at continental or World Championships and is yet to qualify for Tokyo Olympics.
She is not the only one losing her spot to a young wrestler. In the 57 kg, 2018 World Championships bronze medallist Pooja Dhanda lost to former cadet world champion Anshu Malik. India’s entry at last year’s World Championships Sarita Mor also lost to Anshu Malik and has now jumped to 59 kg.
“There are two qualifiers and I think we can get a chance in one of them,” Mor said. “That’s what I am targeting. Win a medal here and then trust the process.”
While the women’s field has gone thin after the pullout of China and North Korea due to coronavirus threat, the level of competition is no way inferior. Japan, the wrestling powerhouse in women’s wrestling, have sent their top wrestlers in almost all categories. Wrestlers from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will also test the Indians.
Only Vinesh Phogat has so far qualified for the Tokyo Games after winning the bronze medal in 53 kg category at the World Championships last year. But even then she cannot take this tournament lightly.
Mayu Mukaida of Japan, who has defeated Phogat twice in last two meetings, will be her toughest opponent and Phogat will try to register her first win over the world silver medallist, who had defeated the Indian in the Asian Championships final in Xian, China, last year.
Bajrang, Dahiya eye gold medals
The gold medallist for India in Xian, Bajrang Punia, will spearhead a strong field of wrestler in men’s freestyle. Punia will look to defend his 65 kg title against some of the top wrestlers in the world.
Former world champion Takuto Otoguro of Japan will be Punia’s main challenger along with Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan. Punia has last to both Otoguro and Niyazbekov in controversial manner at the 2018 and 2019 World Championships respectively.
“I cannot go back in the past and change that,” he said. “But now I have a chance to beat both of the them in front of my home crowd and I will do that. Winning a gold medal at home is amazing.”
In 2017, Punia had won the gold medal at the Asian Championships in New Delhi and since then he has gone on to become a three-time World medallist and also the top wrestler in his weight category.
Three more World medallist will be gunning to win a gold medal at home. Ravi Dahiya is expected to continue his good form and win his first continental title after finishing fifth last year. Dahiya’s phenomenal rise saw him win the bronze medal in Kazakhstan and qualify for the 2020 Games.
“I have wrestled against most of the wrestlers who have come now,” he said. “I am trying to wrestle hard and win the gold. I know I have some weight issues when it comes to reducing it but I am ready for this.”
Deepak Punia and Rahul Aware will try to win the top medal as well in 86 kg and 61 kg respectively but both will be tested by Iran wrestlers.
While a win or loss may not matter to the already qualified wrestlers, a lot is at stake for others. Jitender in 74 kg has a chance to seal his spot for the qualifier if he wins a medal here. And if he manages to repeat his performance in March, that will mean an end of the road for two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar.
Gourav Baliyan, who will wrestle in 79 kg, can also throw his name in the mix if he wins a medal and Jitender fails to do so. Sumit Malik is a big hope to medal in 125 kg and seal his place in the team for the Asian Olympic qualifiers.
The tournament begins with Greco-Roman but apart from Sunil Kumar in 87 kg and Sajan Bhanwal in 77 kg, India are unlikely to cause a big sensation in other Olympic weight categories.