A seven-member wrestling contingent is set to represent India at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with a few of them considered major medal prospects. For the records, they have returned with at least one medal in each of the last three editions of the mega event. Can they maintain the streak?
Wrestling has fetched India five medals at the Olympics so far, the second-most for any discipline (after hockey) and the most for individual events. Legendary athlete KD Jadhav claimed India’s first medal in Wrestling, at the 1952 Helsinki Games. However, it has been a long wait since then. Sushil Kumar finally ended the drought at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by bagging a bronze medal in the men’s 66kg freestyle event.
The 2012 London Olympics was the best outing as far as Indian wrestling is concerned, with India finishing on the podium twice. Sushil Kumar bettered his record at the Games with a silver medal, while Yogeshwar Dutt secured a silver-medal finish in the men’s 60kg freestyle event.
At the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik created history by becoming the first female Indian wrestler to claim an Olympic medal, when she claimed a bronze medal by virtue of repechage bouts in the women’s 58kg freestyle event. A seven-member strong contingent is set to feature at the Games, in Tokyo, next month, with a few of them considered major medal prospects.
Now, let us have a look at the Indian Wrestling Team (Men’s) -
Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg category, Freestyle)
It has been a lot of sacrifice for Ravi Dahiya and his family, since the day he took up wrestling at the age of 10, at the Chhatrasal Stadium, in Delhi. Working as a farmer on rented paddy fields, his father, Rakesh, immersed himself into the daily errand of travelling each day from Nahri (Haryana) to the stadium, to deliver milk and fruits, which were part of Ravi’s wrestling diet. The combined tough grind did not go unrewarded.
The dividends started landing in 2015 when he claimed the silver medal at the Junior World Wrestling Championships. Following a two-year gap, the grappler’s resurgence was well documented with a second-place finish at the 2018 U-23 World Championships. However, his biggest achievement to date remains the bronze medal win at the 2019 World Championships, in Nur Sultan, which earned him a ticket to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
In spite of several hiccups in the build-up to the Olympics owing to the pandemic situation, Ravi still managed to claim top honours at the 2020 and 2021 Asian Wrestling Championships respectively. Even though he is not an outright medal prospect, the Haryana-based athlete is quite capable of pulling off the unexpected. The 23-year old will shift his training base to Russia until the Tokyo Olympics arrive.
Bajrang Punia (Men’s 65kg, Freestyle)
From looking up to wrestlers as superheroes to skipping classes and attending wrestling sessions in mud wrestling schools, Bajrang Punia had his intentions pretty clear from an early age. Energized by his father, also a former wrestler, the entire family moved to Sonepat, in Delhi, so that the aspiring athlete can attend training sessions at the regional SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre. As per the norms, success soon followed.
However, his first major break surfaced at the 2013 World Championships, when he won a bronze medal. One year later, Punia hogged global fame by bagging back to back silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth and Asian Games respectively. In the following editions of the above-mentioned multi-sports events, Bajrang bettered the colour of the hue. In the midst of the medal rush, he was not in contention for the 2016 Rio Olympics, as the 61kg category was not part of the Games.
Observing future prospects, Bajrang shifted to the 65kg category and it clicked. The World Championships medal in 2018 (silver) and 2019 (bronze) was enough to establish himself as a powerhouse in the weight category. The top-podium finish at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, in Rome, earlier this year, justifies the form he’s riding in the build-up to the Games. Bajrang Punia is undoubtedly a major medal prospect.
Deepak Punia (Men’s 86kg, Freestyle)
Youngest of the lot, Deepak Punia’s father and grandfather were professional wrestlers, which fast-tracked his introduction to the combat sport at the age of 4. Hailing from Jhajjar district, an area that has produced dozens of national-level wrestlers, Deepak came straight out of the breeding ground and grew up in the ideal environment. Initially, he used to go around with his cousin in local tournaments and soon started competing in them.
But, pushing up the limit was only possible after he shifted to the Chhatrasal Stadium, in Delhi, where he was nurtured by India’s greatest ever wrestler - Sushil Kumar. The two-time Olympic medallist has been his mentor ever since and Deepak has attributed most of his success to the living legend. Even though the gold medal win at the 2016 World Cadet Championships marked his arrival, the Asian Junior Championships triumph and a second-place finish at the World Junior Championships in 2018 fuelled his career for the long run.
However, 2019 turned out to be a career-defining year for the wrestler, as he went on to grab medals at the Junior World Championships (silver), Asian Wrestling Championships (bronze) and World Championships (silver). The stellar show was enough to secure a berth for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Having missed out on the Matteo Pellicone Trophy earlier this year, Deepak will be travelling to Russia to ramp up his preparations ahead of the quadrennial event.