Are Bajarang Punia, Vinesh Phogat's bronze medals at World Wrestling Championships 2022 enough?

Despite the two bronze and some promise from the youngsters, it won't be wrong to say that preparations were not ideal for an event of a stature as big as the Worlds and led to underwhelming results.

Aditya K Halder September 19, 2022 11:55:16 IST
Are Bajarang Punia, Vinesh Phogat's bronze medals at World Wrestling Championships 2022 enough?

Bajrang Punia during the half time of the 65kg bronze medal bout at the World Wrestling Championships 2022 in Belgrade on Sunday. Screengrab/UWW

Bajrang Punia scripted history in Belgrade on Sunday when the 28-year-old wrestler won his fourth World Wrestling Championships medal. The medal came days after Vinesh Phogat made the country proud by becoming the first Indian woman to win two bronze at the most toughest event after, if not at par with, Olympics.

The two medals clearly were face savers as India had a combined largest contingent of athletes (30) for the event in women’s wrestling, men’s freestyle and Greco Roman disciplines.

While the Greco Roman result was along the expected lines but just two bronze from the freestyle categories raised many eyebrows.  The results were especially stunning for those who saw Indian wrestlers win hoards of medals at the Commonwealth Games a month ago in Birmingham.

Of course, the ardent of Indian wrestling followers are well aware that CWG has always been a happy hunting ground for their stars with major wrestling rivals missing. Therefore, the expectations of similar success are mellowed down at the Worlds with Japan, USA and a range of Slavic and Asian nations coming into play.

Also, a weakened Indian field didn’t help India’s cause as prominent names like Sakshi Malik, Anshu Malik and Deepak Punia (latter two are also Worlds silver medallists) skipping with injuries.

However, watching two of the biggest medal hopefuls Ravi Dahiya (57kg) and Bajrang (65kg) getting subdued in the main draw without much of a fight did disappoint, rather aghast, many. The Tokyo Olympic medal-winning duo suffered defeats by technical superiority to miss out on gold medal opportunity.

Vinesh tweet

The story of Vinesh was no different as the three-time Commonwealth Games champion went down 0-7 to Mongolia’s Khulan Batkhuyag in the qualification rounds of 53kg category.

Both Bajrang and Vinesh had second shots at glory through the repechage rounds. Vinesh, in particular, was impressive as she fought her way to bronze.

The early exit from the main draw had its repercussions as she faced criticism from various quarters even after the bronze medal. The 28-year-old wrestler took to Twitter to hit back at her critics.

“Athletes are humans and while being an athlete is a huge part of who we are, it doesn’t mean we work like robots every time a tournament is announced. Not sure if this culture is in every country or this is just India where we have so many experts sitting at home,” she wrote.

One can sympathise with Vinesh as its hard to fathom the pressure an elite athlete goes through with the entire country’s expectations on his or her shoulders. But still it’s difficult to expect that people will not criticise them for a bad day as they shower the same athletes with love when they make the country proud.

Curious loss of Ravi Dahiya

Ravi Kumar Dahiya is also facing the heat after spending the month training in Russia. His loss to Ubzekistan’s Gulomjon Abdullaev was believed to be tricky as the duo have faced each other multiple times in the past and were involved in some close battles. This included a close 11-10 win for Ravi during the UWW Ranking Series event (Yashar Dogu 2022) in Istanbul. That’s why watching the Tokyo Olympic star getting outwitted by technical superiority left many flabbergasted.

“Ravi gave away too many points at the start and that made things tricky, ” said his personal coach Arun Kumar from Belgrade. “Even at 8-0, we were hopeful that Ravi is capable of turning this around as the Uzbek is not exactly known for his stamina. But again conceding that many points was the undoing for Ravi.”

Abdullaev eventually lost his next bout by technical superiority to eventual gold medallist Zelimkhan Abakarov and the road to repechage round closed for Ravi.

Ravi, who won a bronze in 2019, returned from World Championships without a medal. The star Indian wrestler had missed the 2021 edition, which saw several key Indian stars missing as it was slated right after the Olympics.

India won two medals (a silver and a bronze) at the last edition and had a good outing at 2019 Nur Sultan where a strong contingent returned with five medals – a silver medal and four bronze.

This certainly raises the question if Indian wrestlers prioritised Commonwealth Games over World Championships as there was very little time between the two.

World Championships were certainly the most difficult competition in the calendar year but didn’t have the hype and buildup like the CWG.

“Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are the three most important events for a wrestler or any Olympic sport athlete in India, ” said Dronacharya Awardee coach Maha Singh Rao. “The level of competition in wrestling at CWG can’t be compared to that of Asian Games or Olympics or World Championships. But still a lot is at stake for wrestler when they compete at CWG.”

When Wrestling Federation of India made the women’s trials for the Belgrade event compulsory, only Vinesh, out of the six CWG medal winners, showed up for the Lucknow trials.

With several key names opting out, WFI’s decision to hold compulsory trials for all women wrestlers came under the scanner as three men’s gold medallist from Birmingham were granted exemption.

No exemption for women’s wrestlers

Vinesh earlier said during an interview with Firstpost.com that she did ask WFI for exemption but her request was denied. The wrestling body was clearly in a catch 22 situation as there’s tough competition in all women weight categories while the men’s trio are head and shoulder above their rest of their compatriots in the category.

In the women’s 53kg, Vinesh was facing challenge from upcoming talent Antim, who made her senior’s life tough during the CWG trials and then scripted history by becoming the first Indian to win gold medal at U-20 World Championships last month at the age of 17.

Their Worlds trials bout, however, was bit of an anti-climax as Vinesh overwhelmed the teenager 7-0.

Young Indian wrestlers impress

Three young Indian names in Nisha Dahiya (68kg), Sagar Jaglan (74kg) and Naveen Mallik (70kg) impressed at the Worlds as the trio reached bronze medal matches.

Nisha booked her Belgrade ticket as an underdog as the 23-year-old Sonepat wrestler made the most of Divya Kakran’s absence. The World No. 65 proved at the Worlds that she is no pushover as Nisha defeated three higher ranked opponents before going down to Japan’s Ami Ishii in the semis.

The Indian wrestler looked favourite for the bronze as well with a 4-0 lead against Canada’s  Linda Morais before a knee injury relapse led to an abrupt defeat by fall.

CWG gold medallist Naveen carried his momentum to the Worlds, where he switched to non-Olympic weight category of 70kg from 74 to increase India’s medal chances. The 19-year-old wrestler made it to the repechage final as well where the reigning U23 World Champion lost to World No.1 Ernanaz Akmataliev (Mongolia) 4-0.

Sagar, Naveen’s replacement in the 74kg category, did exceptionally well on his senior Worlds debut as the 18-year-old convincingly defeated higher ranked opponents before going down to defending champion Kyle Dake in the quarters.

Sagar looked in good form on his way to repechage final as well as he went down to reigning Asian Champion Younes Emami (Iran 6-0).

“Youngsters were very impressive,” said Maha Singh Rao, who now trains athlete at Hanuman Akhada in Delhi. “Sagar, Naveen and Nisha were never among medal favourites but they have put themselves forward as medal prospect for Paris and 2028 Olympics. They are certainly the positives to take from this event.”

Despite the two bronze and some promise from the youngsters, it won’t be wrong to say that preparations were not ideal for an event of a stature as big as the Worlds and led to underwhelming results. Next year, Asian Games and World Championships are clubbed together and all efforts must be directed towards a better showing.

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