Banking on the coveted mat for medal in Tokyo
New Delhi: Wrestling is one of the sports that is expected to produce at least a medal for India at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat are the two most likely wrestlers to end up on the podium. Yet, it is interesting to note that apart from these two ace grapplers, it is thin pickings for India in wrestling.
Bajrang is ranked number one in the world in the 65kg category and is considered a genuine contender for gold medal in Tokyo. He has won seven golds in his last nine tournaments and this includes his victory at the 2018 Asian Games. He is looking to seal qualification through the World Championship that will be held in September in Nur-Sultan, Kazhakstan, for which he sealed his spot in the Indian contingent in a rather farcical trial on Friday.
Bajrang said after the trial that he is working with his coach Shako Bentinidis on his leg defence, the only real weakness in what is otherwise a foolproof technique. Bajrang tends to give away points with the overwhelming confidence that he can make up for the deficit. He manages to do that most of the times but defeats in the final of the 2018 World Championship and the 2019 Beat the Street at Madison Square Garden showed that this makes him susceptible against elite competition in high-pressure environments. The World Championship would also be the perfect gauge to see where Bajrang truly stands with the respect to the Olympics with the 24-year-old expecting the competition in Kazhakstan to match, if not surpass, what he will face in Tokyo.
Despite his high billing, it is interesting to note that this will be the first time Bajrang will be taking part in the Olympics. He was anything but the household name he is now during Rio 2016, unlike Vinesh.
Vinesh was one of the favourites to win a medal at the 2016 Olympics but a career threatening injury during the quarter finals forced her to end her campaign. Vinesh has since then fought her way back to fitness and form. However, unlike Bajrang, she has not been steady with her weight class.
Vinesh wrestled in the Rio Olympics in 48kg. After her recovery, she tried to wrestle in the category in the 2017 World Championship with little success. Her two golds in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018 came in 50kg but in March this year, she decided to move up to 53kg to reduce the risk of injuries and prolong her career. Her first challenge in the new weight class was the Dan Kolov tournament and that was followed by the Asian Championship in April. She won a silver and a bronze respectively in the two events but then went on to win the Grand Prix in Spain and Yasar Dogu tournament this month, thus indicating that she is settling into her new category.
Apart from these two wrestlers, it is hard to see a genuine medal contender in the Indian contingent. Sakshi Malik has been on a downward spiral since her historic bronze medal at Rio 2016. She admitted that a lot of it has to do with the mental clutter because of which she has curbed her tendency to take risks. It is this tendency that allowed her to go 0-5 down in the medal match in Rio before turning it around and ending up with a smile on her face and a medal around her neck. She will be looking to make the World Championship team on Sunday in the trials that will be held in Lucknow.
It is to be noted, though, that Sakshi was hardly in form wrester going into Rio 2016, just as is the case now.
Pooja Dhanda (57kg) and Seema (50kg) are two other names who have impressed in recent years among the female wrestlers while Sumit (125kg), Mausam Khatri (97kg), Deepak Punia (86kg) and Ravi Dahiya(57kg) have made it to the World Championship squad. Sushil Kumar will be looking to join them in the 74kg category with the trials for the weight class being postponed to the second week of August. The 36-year-old two-time Olympic medallist, well into the twilight of his career, last made an appearance in the international stage at the 2018 Asian Games where he crashed out in the qualifications.