After weeks of waiting, India is set for the Asian Olympic qualifiers to be held in Kazakhstan from March 18 to March 20. A strong 17-member squad will carry the hopes of securing qualification for the Rio Olympics. All the usual suspects are there with the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt leading the squad, which has a nice mix of youngsters and experienced grapplers.
Freestyle:Rahul Aware (57kg), Yogeshwar Dutt (65kg), Somvir (86kg), Satyawart Kadiyan (97kg), Hitender (125kg).
Greco-Roman: Ravinder Singh (59kg), Ravinder (66kg), Gurpreet Singh (75kg), Ravinder Khatri (85kg), Hardeep Singh (98kg), Naveen (130kg).
Notable absentees: Amit Kumar and Geeta Phogat
Amit Kumar was third in the pecking order for Men’s 57kg Freestyle and the trials only reaffirmed his low-flying status with the wrestler struggling due to lack of fitness and match practice.
In the women’s freestyle, Sakshi Malik is gaining ppopularity with every tournament and her experience in the Pro-wrestling league, along with an impressive performance at the Asian Championship seems to be holding her in good stead. After getting past a resurgent and more experienced senior Geeta Phogat in the trials, the grappler will head into the qualifiers oozing with confidence.
The arrival of the erstwhile Soviet blocs has upped the standard of Asian Wrestling asthe speed of the Japanese and the Koreans is now complemented by the strength and power of the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks.
But even after the emergence of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Iran continue to rule the roost in terms of Asian Wrestling, both in Freestyle and Greco-Roman. With Iran already having qualified for Rio in all the Freestyle categories except the super heavyweight category, India will have a golden chance to pocket the remaining spots.
In the 57 kg category, Iran, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and North Korea have already qualified for the Olympics and this will open up a chance for Rahul Aware. Aware’s main challenge should come from Korean Kim Sunggwon, who lost narrowly to Amit Kumar at the Las Vegas Worlds. The Korean produced only an average performance at the Asian Championships and will be looking for a much-improved outing in the qualifiers.
Prediction: This is a golden chance for Aware and India to bag a quota, but it could turn out to be difficult with Aware’s lack of exposure at the International level.
In the 65kg category, the competition is a bit stiff. Mongolia and Uzbekistan have qualified but Yogeshwar’s big challenge will come from the extremely physical Chinese man Katai Yerlanbieke, who had lost only narrowly to Dutt in the Asian Games semis at Incheon.
Prediction: Yogeshwar’s own health and fitness will be a huge factor against opponents, who will be younger and faster than him.
In the 86kg category, young Somvir has a huge task on his hand with only Iran having qualified for the Olympics from this category. The youngster impressed one and all at the Asian Championships last month, but he seemed powerless against the mighty Lashgiri and the very physical Kazakh Kakhidze.
Prediction: The inexperienced Somvir, like most other Indian grapplers, has got almost no competitive match exposure at the International level and will find it tough against the Soviet bloc wrestlers.
In the 97 kg category, Satywrat kadian and Mausam Khatri have been playing musical chairs in the last couple of years with the younger Kadian coming out on top this time.
While Iran is the only country to have qualified, Kadian will need to be razor sharp at the same time hope he does not run into any wrestler from the erstwhile Soviet blocs, who are much stronger and faster than the Indian. But the outright favorite will be Magomed Musaev from Kyrgyzstan, who was silver medallist at the Asians and quarter finalist at the last world championships.
Prediction: Kadian has come out as a very passive wrestler on many occasions. This was very evident in both the Incheon Asian Games and Glasgow Commonwealth Games, with him managing only a bronze in Glasgow. Speed will be a critical factor in the qualifiers for this 2013 World Junior bronze medallist.
The less said the better about Hitender’s chances in the Super-Heavy category with only 1 qualification so far for the Olympics. His performances in the Pro-wrestling league were way below average and he is unlikely to earn a ticket for Rio.
Japan is to women’s freestyle what Iran is to men’s freestyle wrestling. They are the outright champions at the Asian level and easily among the world’s best. The good news once again to all the nations that are participating in the qualifiers is, yes, you guessed it right- Japan has qualified in all but one of the 6 weight categories(75 kg). China is comfortably the second strongest nation and has qualified in three categories and the next in line is Mongolia with 2 spots.
So let’s analyse India’s prospects in each weight category.
48kg - The strongest bet Vinesh Phogat has always been threatening to be Asia’s best grappler, but is yet to reach that pinnacle. With a Commonwealth gold, Asian Games bronze, a silver at the 2015 Asian Championships and a bronze at 53kg in the 2016 Asian Championships, the young grappler from Haryana knows what it takes to stand on the podium.
With Japan and China having already qualified and Medved prize winner Zhuldyz Eshimova from Kazakhstan having spent last year competing in the 53kg category, the Mongolian Erdeneseukh Narangerel seems to be the only serious challenger for the Indian.
Prediction: Vinesh is expected to return with gold and a ticket to Rio
53 kg – Babita got the closest to nailing an Olympic berth at the Las Vegas worlds after reaching the quarter-final before running into the impregnable Zhong from China. China, Japan and North Korea have already qualified but the 2011 world silver medalist Otgontsetseg from Mongolia and Vietnamese Nguyen, who was runner up at the Asian Championships will be her two main challengers.
Prediction: If the Indian performs up to her potential, she is likely to make it to the final, thus pocketing a quota for Rio.
58kg – Pro Wrestling League followers will be familiar with Sakshi Malik, who edged Geeta Phogat, for the chance to represent the country in the qualifiers. But the Indian will find it tough in the presence of Mongolian Orkhon Purvedorj, who defeated the great Kaori Icho acouple of months ago. Making life tougher for Sakshi will be Aisuluu Tynybekova from Krygztan and Aiym Abdildina of Kazakasthan.
Sakshi’s performance at the recent Asian Championships was a mixed bag albeit in 60 kg, where she suffered 2 falls. But she should be carrying the confidence of defeating Geeta Phogat twice in the last 3 months.
Prediction: Sakshi Malik will find it tough in the presence of stong competitors, but could make it to the last four with a favourable draw.
63 kg – The elder statesman in this squad, Anita will represent India in this category. Not spoken of as frequently as the headline-grabbing Phogat sisters, the 2010 Commonwealth Games winner looked impressive at the Asian Championships. But, the 2013 World bronze medallist Ekaterina Lorianova of Kazakhstan looks the outright favorite followed closely by the Chinese Wang Xiaoqian.
Prediction: Her experience and lack of quality in this category at the Asian level coupled with a favourable draw could see her go deep in the tournament.
69kg – Navjot Kaur, who is probably the weakest grappler in the Indian squad, will represent India in this category. With China, Japan and Mongolia having already qualified for the Rio, Navjot will have a golden chance to make it to Rio. But it is highly unlikely to happen given the recent record of the wrestler.
Prediction: Will be pleasantly surprised if she qualifies for Rio.
75 kg – Very little is heard of Kiran, India’s grappler in this category.
Overall, one can expect at least two Rio Olympic berths from the women grapplers. Anything more would be a pleasant bonus.