A tale of two halves is footballing terminology but it aptly describes Sushil Kumar’s wrestling career. An unprecedented double Olympic medallist, Sushil was the face, heart and soul of Indian wrestling’s resurgence on the global stage. He was the reference point for Indian wrestlers steeped in mediocrity.
With his achievements at the international level that also included a World Championship title, Sushil Kumar lifted a sport that had almost lost its right to be called one as wrestlers were seen more as goons than athletes.
On Sunday, a special unit of Delhi Police arrested Sushil in a murder case of fellow international wrestler Sagar Dhankad. He is alleged to have been part of the group that assaulted Dhankad at the Chhatrasal stadium.
What’s made the episode uglier is that the Delhi Police claim they have electronic evidence against Sushil who, since the FIR was registered against him, was absconding for about three weeks. It was the lowest of the lows for the great wrestler, India’s only individual double Olympic medallist.
After Sushil Kumar’s arrival, Indian wrestling was not the same. It changed. It wasn’t all his own doing, but he was the catalyst to that change, almost a revolution. Indian wrestlers after him became more professional, competed at the highest level regularly and also won medals.
Sushil was seen as a role model for those competing for medals. A consistent performer on the world stage and also a leader.
At the Chhatrasal stadium in New Delhi, Sushil’s training place and almost a second home, young wrestlers queued up for advice. He would not disappoint and give them valuable tips. He would also make sure the sanctity of the place wasn’t affected. His help wasn’t restricted to just wrestlers as he motivated athletes of other disciplines through their difficult times. Among a host of wrestlers at the Chhatrsal stadium, Sushil was no ordinary one. He was ‘the pehelwanji’. The one and only.
But since 2012, his last Olympic medal, Sushil Kumar’s performances on the mat have been on the decline. That though has been the lesser of the concerns surrounding the great wrestler who has been embroiled in one controversy after another.
On 23 May 2021 — seen as World Wrestling day — he hit a new low.
This fall from grace for Sushil though has been gradual and definite. Even such a major allegation wasn’t completely out of the blue. Wrestlers close to Sushil, who spoke to Scroll.in on the condition of anonymity, had seen this coming for a while. They could see him being surrounded by people willing to take advantage of his stature and only cause harm to his career and legacy. They had even warned him about it several times, but he didn’t pay much heed to it.
A few wrestlers also put a part of the blame on Satpal Singh, Sushil’s coach and father-in-law who ran the akhara at the Chhatrasal stadium till 2016, for losing control of it to outside powers.
Sushil was appointed an Officer on Special Duty of the facility after Satpal retired in 2016 and it is believed that the move was aimed at keeping the stadium in the tight grip of the family.
But the concentration of power hasn’t aided the academy. Over the years though, Chhatrasal has slowly lost a number of big-name wrestlers who have quit the place over reported disagreements with Sushil.
PTI reported that fellow Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt and World Championship silver medallist Bajrang Punia left for similar reasons.
“Sushil, who is employed there on Railways’ deputation, calls the shots. If you won’t listen to him or do as he suggests, he would quietly start harassing you,” a source told PTI.
The source further added: “People are scared to say anything. They come to make a career, not to indulge in politics. So they found it convenient to leave rather than tolerate the stadium politics.”
Controversies pile up
While the wrestlers who left decided to keep mum, other incidents arising out of the Chhatrasal stadium have only made Sushil’s image murkier.
In 2016, when Wrestling Federation of India had chosen Narsingh Pancham Yadav to represent India at the Rio Games. He later failed a dope test and accused Sushil Kumar’s allies at the Chhatrsasal stadium of having a role in spiking his food, a charge which was found to be false. The episode, however, resulted in international embarrassment for India and personal embarrassment for Narsingh who missed out on competing in Rio de Janeiro.
Instances hinting towards Sushil misusing his stature continued to come to the surface.
During the 2018 Commonwealth Games trials when Sushil beat Praveen Rana in the final, the supporters of the two camps traded blows outside the stadium. Rana and his brother were badly injured and had to be hospitalised.
Rana had later alleged that the bout was interrupted many times at the behest of Sushil and the officials were also threatened and finally, it was awarded to the 2010 World Champion.
Sushil has taken over more administrative responsibilities beyond the Chhatrasal stadium while still harbouring ambitions of continuing his wrestling career. While he has been a shadow of his past on the mat, losing in the second round at the 2018 Asian Games and first round at the 2019 World Championship, his administrative stints have also attracted controversy.
Sushil was re-elected the President of the School Games Federation of India, which was in news for all the wrong reasons. He had alleged that SGFI secretary had forged his signature to change the by-laws of the organisation and also committed irregularities.
Earlier, the SGFI was suspended by the sports ministry over violations of provisions of the National Sports Code while Sushil was the president. It was also under his tenure that a 15-year-old Indian swimmer drowned in Australia during the Pacific School Games in 2017. After the suspension of the body, the Sushil-led SGFI banned five office bearers responsible for Indian contingent at the Pacific School Games for five years, but continued to remain in power, according to a report by Newsclick.
A blow for Indian sport
As the police further investigate Sushil Kumar’s case and the matter comes up in court, India’s solitary double individual Olympic medallist doesn’t have the aura of a sporting icon anymore. While Sushil remains innocent until proven guilty, the barrage of allegations against him over the years barely does his case any good.
Sushil has fallen prey to the very traps that he did so well to overcome during his early days as a wrestler while also guiding fellow wrestlers on the way. Now, he is at centre of an episode that is a threat to the sport’s identity.
“I must say that the image of Indian wrestling has got hurt badly by this. The sport has struggled hard in earning a reputation because for long wrestlers were known only as a bunch of goons,” WFI Assistant Secretary Vinod Tomar told PTI.
For Indian sport too, Sushil Kumar’s arrest is a blow. It puts a dampener on one of its greatest Olympic feats, one that might well remain unmatched in the near future at least. It serves only to add to the negativity and gloom of the times. It is a fall from grace that is hard to digest for followers of Indian sport.