It has been a year of wild fluctuations in Indian wrestling.
In January, some Indian wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, launched a protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. They accused him of sexual harassment and bullying. (Full Coverage | Streaming & Schedule)
The battle between the BJP strongman and the fighters continued for months and ended up in court. It left Indian wrestling divided and strained. The WFI elections have still not been held. About a month ago, the world wrestling body, United World Wrestling (UWW), suspended WFI for failing to conduct polls within the stipulated period.
Amid the circus of politics, Indian wrestlers have to focus on the tough task of winning medals at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou. Leading the contenders are Bajrang Punia (men’s 65kg freestyle) and Antim Panghal (women’s 53kg freestyle).
Panghal and Punia had controversies of their own to come through before the Asiad.
Panghal, who created history last month by winning her second consecutive junior World title, was at first not selected for the Asian Games, even though she won her trials.
In her place, Vinesh Phogat was given direct entry in the 53 kg category. But Vinesh backed out after an injury and Panghal replaced her in the squad.
"Vinesh is a very good wrestler. She has medals in Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships, but I will try to do better than her. I have been practicing for the Asian Games for a long time," the feisty Panghal said.
For Punia, the challenge seems tougher. He has had knee problems since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where he won a bronze. He also spent a lot of time at the protests and is short on practice. If not for the trial exemption he received, he might not have been in Hangzhou.
Punia’s free pass into the Asiad was most galling for his young rival Vishal Kaliraman, who won the 65kg trials. The situation even led to the bizarre involvement of the Khap panchayat, who backed Kaliraman in the dispute. But the panchayat does not have a say in selection and Punia made it to the Asian Games.
Punia, however, is no ordinary wrestler. He won gold at the 2018 Asian Games and a bronze at the Olympics. It is not beyond him to turn back the clock in Hangzhou.
“Getting justice for India’s daughters will be a bigger medal for me than the Asiad,” Punia had said dramatically a few months ago in the context of the
protests. It was fine as a sound byte, but now that he is in the squad, at the cost of a deserving young hopeful, mere grandstanding will not suffice.
Among the notables in the women’s squad, Panghal aside, are Pooja Gehlot, Mansi Ahlawat, Sonam Malik and Kiran. Gehlot is a Commonwealth Games bronze medalist. She defeated Nirmala Devi in the finals of the Asiad trials to seal a spot in the 50 kg category.
Among the men, former Asian Championships bronze medallist Gyanendra topped the trials in the 60kg Greco-Roman division. The usual suspects Neeraj (67kg), Naveen (130kg) and Narinder Cheema (97kg) also made the cut. Aman Sehrawat (57kg freestyle) is another name being talked about as a medal prospect.
Expectations are also high from Olympian Deepak Punia (men's 86 kg freestyle). This is more so as he bagged the gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Indian wrestlers have won 59 medals in Asian Games over the years - 11 gold, 14 silver and 34 bronze. But rarely did they have to perform in the backdrop of something as tumultuous as this year’s rebellion against the establishment. The protests, however, might just fire up the fighters to reach a higher gear and prove a point to detractors.