Why we could miss out on a generation of wrestlers post COVID-19 crisis

Why we could miss out on a generation of wrestlers post COVID-19 crisis

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Indian wrestlers have secured at least one medal in each of the last three Olympics



Wrestling is one of India's core strengths in the Olympics, with India winning at least one medal in each of the last three editions. With the abrupt halt to sporting activities owing to the pandemic, we might see a lot of after-effects, especially for combat sports like wrestling.

In a COVID-19 stricken world where social distancing is a new norm, there’s no time frame on when the world of sports might get back to normal. Football has already started off abiding by new rules, while others have also taken strides towards normalcy. Shooters, Archers, and even Racquet sports athletes have the privilege of maintaining distance and going about their business to a certain extent. But what happens to combat sports like wrestling? Social distancing is a myth inside the ring, with two contenders using all the strength they have to push the other into submission, then how is it possible to resume bouts amidst the health crisis?

As evident from the past, Wrestling has been one of India’s core strengths in the Olympics, with the contingent claiming at least one medal in each of the last three editions, with Sushil Kumar (2008 and 2012), Yogeshwar Duttt (2012) and Sakshi Malik (2016) claiming podium finishes. Even though the lockdown has put an abrupt halt to the whole process, top-notch wrestlers and Olympics aspirants have practice facilities at their disposal within domestic territories. The bigger question lies in how others cope with the situation and how the game as a whole gets affected by an unprecedented health crisis.

At the moment, academies across the country have been shut down, while the national camps are yet to be assigned a date of resumption. Moreover, the situation is not at all safe for sparring, with the Covid-19 cases increasing at an unfavourable rate. For the time being, maintaining fitness via physical exercise is the only way for athletes to stay in shape. National coach Kuldeep Malik has been closely monitoring his students and giving inputs as there is no other option, with gymnasiums closed for an indefinite period.

“Individually, the wrestlers have to keep themselves fit at home by physical training; they could use a nearby ground for the purpose. We do keep a track of what the wrestlers’ whereabouts during lockdowns and we also give additional inputs as required. There’s no other option, as athletes cannot hit the gym for obvious reasons, but they can at the most spar with their family members at home,” said Kuldeep Malik, during a chat with Sportscafe.

Even though this is a stop-gap solution, we have no clarity on when two wrestlers can actually battle each other on the mat again, even after the nationwide lockdown eases. With the nature of the Covid-19 virus and its prolonged stay, the risk of contamination is huge especially in a sport like wrestling. So, we might see restrictions even when other sports regain normalcy. To put in simple words, the threat of getting contacted with the virus from other athletes might put the future of wrestling in a spot of bother, until the risk is eliminated completely.

“This is a body contact game and anything can, there’s danger looming over always. Sports like wrestling, boxing, judo, sumo, etc have been the worst affected as far as the Covid-19 situation is concerned. These are not possible without body contact,” added the national coach.

Sakshi Malik along with coach Kuldeep Malik at the 2016 Rio Olympics © Getty

All the major European football leagues that have resumed play or are planning to do as much will do so only in accordance with safety measures and proper medical testing procedures. It must be noted that these are the few leagues across Europe that are most financially sound and can actually afford such precautionary measures. Wrestling, on the other hand, isn’t amongst the most heavily financed sports especially in India with them operating on a much lower budget and that doesn’t give them a chance to create similar plans. Moreover, wrestling in India is mainly confined to rural areas of North India where medical facilities are not advanced enough to run checks on each athlete, which will essentially lead to fewer footfalls.

“The pandemic which has spread is a deadly one and gets transmitted from person to person. Everyone will be cautious before he faces someone inside the ring. Now, if someone arrives with a soaring temperature, no one will be willing to wrestle with him. And we do not have medical facilities everywhere that we can conduct checks on every athlete before practise. It will be very risky in the aftermath of the pandemic,” opined the coach.

Even though the Phogat’s defied all odds and showed everyone that wrestling is a primary career option, the majority of the folk in rural areas might not be on the same page. With the threat of Covid-19 looming over, parents will think twice before sending their kids to the ring. Supposedly, if wrestlers do stay away from the ring for a long period of time, say for six months - one year in extreme circumstances - they are going to fall behind drastically. At the same time, India as a sporting country is losing out on aspiring wrestlers who would have taken up the sports under normal circumstances, causing a major threat to the future generation of wrestlers in the country. 

“One-two years is a very long time, considering the nature of the game, even if you skip practice for a month, he becomes stagnant to a very big extent. You are talking about one year, it’s a very long time. The situation would be a lot different, but we have to work together to cover up the gap that has been going through now,” added Kuldeep Malik.

With the qualification process for the 2021 Tokyo Games almost over, there won’t be a scratch as far as the mega event is concerned, with athletes around the world facing a similar problem. But, if the situation doesn’t stabilize, unfortunately, India will have to brace themselves for a depleted number of wrestlers cometh the next Commonwealth Games or Asian Games. For the time being, we can hope that the deadly virus stays away before chalking out any long term plans. 

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