As seven wrestlers prepare to take the stage at Rio Olympics, Roopa Pai puts their hopes and dreams in perspective.
(Published with permission from Roopa Pai, who first wrote this post on her Facebook wall.)
Of all the sports contested at the Olympics, perhaps the most ‘Indian’ one, literally, historically, traditionally, and metaphorically, is the sport of wrestling.
Literally, not only because it has been practised in this region for some 5,000 years, making it the oldest codified form of combat in the south Asian region, but also because it is part of our oldest stories and our sacred mythology. Historically, because so many Indian kings – Krishna Deva Raya, Narasimhavarman, Babur, and reportedly, even Siddhartha Gautama – were Mahamallas (great wrestlers) themselves, and because even those kings who weren’t offered such significant royal patronage to the sport. Traditionally, because there is scarcely a region in the country that has not had a long, unbroken tradition of village fairs where the wrestling contests are the real draw. And metaphorically, because the form in which it is practised in India today is a seamless tapestry of our country’s history itself – the ancient malla-yuddha of Bhima and Duryodhana combined with the Persian- and Mongolian-influenced kusti and pehlwani of the Mughal era.
Fitting, then, that the country’s first-ever individual medallist at the Olympics was a wrestler, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, who won the bronze in the men’s freestyle bantamweight at the 1952 Helsinki Games. (Norman Pritchard, born in Calcutta of British parents, won two silvers at the Olympics in Paris in 1900, but there is some confusion about which country he represented – the IAAF lists him as representing Great Britain, while the IOC credits his medals to India – so we can leave him out of the discussion for now). No more wrestling medals were won for over half a century, but things began to look up in 2008, when Sushil Kumar won his bronze in Beijing. More success followed – Indian wrestlers won two medals – Sushil Kumar a silver, and Yogeshwar Dutt a bronze – in London 2012.
Last night, India’s largest wrestling contingent at the Olympics – a record eight wrestlers, five male and three female, have qualified this time around – opened their challenge at Rio. Ravinder Khatri, who squeaked through to an Olympic berth after the Kyrgyztan wrestler ahead of him tested positive, unfortunately did not advance. But there are still seven wrestlers to take the stage, including Yogeshwar Dutt, 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Narsingh Yadav, 2010 Commonwealth silver medallist Babita Kumari (who is also, incidentally, the daughter of Mahavir Singh Phogat, who Aamir Khan plays in the soon-to-be-released biographical sports film Dangal), and Babita’s cousin, 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat.
There is also Hardeep Singh, who made history by becoming the first Indian wrestler ever to qualify in the heavyweight category (98-kg) of the Greco-Roman discipline. The Greco-Roman style of wrestling is not as liberal as the other category, freestyle, which Indian wrestlers have traditionally been better at. All moves in the former are restricted to the region above the waist – you can’t, for instance, trip your opponent up with your foot, or resist a lift by hooking your foot around his – and it calls for the kind of tremendous upper-body strength that European contenders have a lot more of. But Hardeep Singh is quietly confident that he has what it takes.
Needless to say, there will be big prizes and accolades for Hardeep if he manages to bring home a medal. But the 25-year-old wants to be on that Olympic podium for a bigger reason. Eight years ago, his farmer father, the family’s sole bread-winner, lost a leg in a tragic accident. As the oldest of three siblings, it would have been expected of Hardeep to step up to the responsibility and take over the farm, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. Nothing, he had declared then, would come between his talented son and his wrestling dreams. The first few years were a huge struggle for the family, but his father never let Hardeep, who was away training with elite wrestlers at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, know what they were going through.
Things are much better now – Hardeep has a job with the Railways, his younger sister is married, and there is enough money for his younger brother to continue his studies. Most importantly, he has lived up to his father’s confidence in him, and made it to the grandest sporting stage of all.
Tonight, at 7:15 pm IST, a grateful Hardeep Singh will be fighting to make his father proud.
(About the author: History buff, computer engineer and writer, Roopa Pai has lived, worked, and travelled in three continents, writing for some of India’s best known publications. She has written over 20 books, which include the 8-part fantasy-adventure series Taranauts for kids, bestseller The Gita for Children and a biography of Chanakya—The Master Statesman for adults. She also has an alternate career as a tour guide with BangaloreWalks, a heritage walks and tours company.)