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Asian Games 2018: Sushil Kumar, the gentle giant of Indian wrestling, faces uncertain future after first round defeat

The legend of Sushil Kumar lives on, unmindful of his crashing out of the Asian Games at the first hurdle in the 74kg class freestyle wrestling in the packed Assembly Hall at the Jakarta Convention Centre. It may be unfair and too soon to write him off, but he was quite aware that it was Bajrang Punia and, not so much Sushil himself, would be the star for India’s opening day.

File image of Sushil Kumar. AFP

File image of Sushil Kumar. AFP

Midway through his bout with Bahrain’s Russia-born Adam Batirov, it was apparent that the only Indian with two individual Olympic Games medals was facing an uphill battle. There was some egging on early on but towards the end only a lone voice from the popular stands exhorted him: “Come on, Pehelwanji!”

It was not long before that voice as well was drowned in the shocked silence that cloaked even his bitterest critics. For years, he has been a flag-bearer of wrestling, inspiring many youngsters to take to the sport. But on Sunday, he was a shadow of the giant who strode the Indian wrestling scene with grace and dignity.

As the 35-year-old kept waiting for the Bahraini to expend his energy and walk into a trap, Sushil was himself not conserving any energy himself. It was apparent before long that Batirov brought extra pace to the bout and pushed the Indian first to be docked a point for being passive and then quickly shifted momentum his way.

Sushil reminded of a craftsman whose reflexes had slowed down but would never think in terms of giving it up. He loves his wrestling so much that the one way of overcoming the trauma imposed on him by uncaring officials in the run up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was to compete in India colours in a multi-discipline celebration yet again.

More than anyone else, he would have known that none of his opponents at this level would turn up on the mat, weighed down by his reputation. He would surely have known that he would have to earn every point. That intent was seen in the early part of his bout when he claimed the lead with a manoeuvre that was reminiscent of the past.

Yet, as he settled down to watch the bouts to see if the man he was vanquished by would make it to the final and gain him a chance to stake claim for a bronze medal, he would hear murmurs that he was past his sell-by date and that he could not be showing “attitude” to the rest of the wrestling fraternity in the country.

If he listened carefully over the din in the Assembly Hall, he would have heard some losing no time to point out that he needed to be training with the Indian team rather than on his own in Georgia, his favourite training location. He had applied for funding from Target Olympic Podium scheme and moved to Georgia since he would not have sparring partners of any quality at home.

The last couple of times he battled against Praveen Rana, who took over from Narsingh Yadav as his primary challenger, have been eventful – the younger wrestler first touched Sushil Kumar’s feet and conceded a walk-over in the National Championship. And then, in the trials for the Commonwealth and Asian Games, there was an ugly brawl between their supporters.

His runs-down with the powers-that-be in the Wrestling Federation of India are too well-known to bear repetition here. It is no secret that the Federation officials have been miffed with Sushil – or are they more upset with his father-in-law and mentor Satpal – ever since he knocked the doors of the Delhi High Court just before the Olympic Games in 2016.

There has been no love lost since then. It prompted National coach Jagmander Singh to publicly say that he had no idea of Sushil's training programme or of his form. Yet, if Sushil looked for the familiar face of his mentor in the stands, he did not make it obvious. He wore the countenance of acceptance rather than of anguish.

It was too soon for him to visualise the repercussions of his early exit from the Asian Games here but as he mingled with the mediapersons and others from India, the legend was not in a mood to dip into nostalgia or even wait to analyse the reasons for his defeat. It would have been too painful for him to replay images of the first-round bout.

Even on the day he was handed a first round defeat and no chance to add to the bronze medal he won in the 66kg class at the Asian Games in 2006, Sushil Kumar was his gentle self. Perhaps deep down he would have been wishing that his reflexes had not let Batirov get the better of him, he would have been wishing that things had panned out differently over the past couple of years.

Despite having expressed himself clearly that he wanted to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games as well, only he will know now whether he will make himself available for selection for the Indian team over the next year or so. After all, Sunday’s loss was his second in the span of a month and a half. The mandarins may find it one loss too many.


Updated Date: Aug 19, 2018 20:08 PM

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