Sajan Bhanwal, two-time Junior World Championships medallist, confident things are looking up for Greco-Roman wrestling
Sajan Bhanwal's silver at the Junior World Wrestling Championships has sparked hope that the often neglected discipline of Greco-Roman wrestling maybe finally finding its feet.
The city of Trnava is unlikely to feature in wrestling folklore of the country anytime soon, but maybe, just maybe, after the events of September this year, it should.
The unassuming city in Slovakia hosted the Junior World Wrestling Championships in September this year, where India returned with seven medals. But that isn't the story. The real story lies in the three medals – Sajan Bhanwal's silver in the 77kg weight class, Vijay's silver in the 60kg weight class and a bronze in the 55kg category by another athlete coincidentally also called Vijay – the country's Greco-Roman wrestlers brought home, sparking hope that the often neglected discipline maybe finally finding its feet in a country that traditionally only had eyes for freestyle. After all, when was the last time the country's Greco-Roman wrestlers out-shone their freestyle counterparts at a prestigious tournament?
"Greco-Roman in India was very weak from the start. But our batch is a particularly strong one. We had three medals at the Junior World Championships – that had never happened before. That batch will now graduate into senior tournaments," says Bhanwal, who has the rare distinction of winning two Junior World Championship medals, the first coming in Tampere (Finland).
Bhanwal regrets not winning the gold – which would have made him only the first Indian Greco-Roman wrestler to win one at a Junior World Championships since 2001 – but he's glad at having switched to the discipline from freestyle.
"The first year of my wrestling career, I tried my hands at freestyle. But then I decided to switch to Greco because I realised that winning medals is particularly difficult in freestyle. In India, freestyle is an event that has a lot of competition in terms of athletes," Bhanwal tells Firstpost.
On being asked what areas the country's Greco wrestlers lagged behind their foreign counterparts, Bhanwal says: "In our country, wrestling from a standing position has always been good, but we have started to work on our ground technique as well. Our ground movements are weak compared to foreign grapplers. That's where we were lacking before also. But since tournaments like Pro Wrestling have emerged, we have gotten to understand the finer techniques of these by training with foreign athletes. We still need to improve a lot more on that. If you look at the foreign Greco-Roman wrestlers, they are so skilled at lifts. We struggle to compete with that. That's why our Greco-Roman wrestling is weak."
Greco-Roman differs from freestyle due to a rule prohibiting wrestlers from attacking the opponent below the waist in the former. The ground technique is particularly useful while the par terre – a part of the bout where a wrestler starts by lying on the mat while his opponent gets on top, thus giving an advantage – is in action.
Bhanwal's switch from freestyle to Greco-Roman is not unique. Sandeep Tulsi Yadav, who is currently serving a ban for a doping violation, also made the move to Greco due to the towering presence of Sushil Kumar in his weight class in freestyle. Sandeep won a bronze at the Worlds in 2013. The bronze was seen by many as a game-changer for the discipline, which is often looked at by condescension by the country's wrestling fraternity.
"I used to train at Pratap Sports School in Haryana, which fortunately was a Greco-Roman centre, so the switch became easier. My longtime coach Rajbir Chhikara was the instructor there, so he helped me with the move," adds Bhanwala on the sidelines of an event to announce the Tata Motors Elite Wrestlers Development Programme. The programme will see elite wrestlers being aided financially to cover their training needs, which will include providing foreign coaches, foreign trips (for 50 days or more) and camps for international exposure.
The programme will also fund the hiring of two foreign coaches – one each for men and women elite wrestlers – to work with the grapplers for the Asian Championships next year in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) and World Championship in Astana (Kazakhstan), which will be the first qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
It remains to be seen whether the international coach for men is an expert in Greco-Roman or just the freestyle discipline. "When we have our camp after the Pro Wrestling League, hopefully, we will get a foreign coach there," says Bhanwal.
But the presence of Bhanwal at the press conference itself was an indicator that the discipline is moving out of the shadows of their freestyle counterparts. The 20-year-old was also handed a Grade C contract (worth Rs 10 lakh) at the event in Mumbai, while it was announced that two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Sakshi Malik would be upgraded to Grade A, which previously only had Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Pooja Dhanda. Sajan, Vijay (60kg) and Harpreet Singh were the only three Greco-Roman wrestlers to be awarded contracts in the top five brackets (until Grade E), which had 12 freestyle wrestlers and 10 women's grapplers, illustrating the wide gap the discipline would have to cover.
"Now that medals have started coming in Greco-Roman too, we will also get a push to do better. This Rs 10-lakh annual contract will not only help me greatly financially but also psychologically. The target now is to make the cut for Tokyo 2020 at the World Championships," Bhanwal adds.
The young wrestler claims that the state government is yet to pay him nearly Rs 30 lakh that it had promised him. He adds that despite his twin Junior World Championships medals, job offers at government organisations have not come by.
With Bhanwal hailing from a humble background – his father is a farmer in Haryana – the family often had to borrow money while coach Rajbir has also had to help out at times.
"This annual contract will be particularly beneficial for me. I come from a regular family. There were times when I could not afford the diet a wrestler has to live on. But now things are looking up," he says.
Not just for Bhanwal, things are looking up for Greco-Roman too in India.
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