London/New Delhi: It was perhaps India’s most telling moment of glory at the 2012 London Olympics—freestyle wrestler Sushil Kumar lifting Kazakhstan’s Akzhurek Tanatarov, his opponent in the semi-finals, over his shoulders and on to the mat for a stunning victory.
It was a spectacular turnaround, since Kumar was trailing for much of the bout, and a show of strength and willpower. Unfortunately, he could not find the same spark in the final, losing to Japan’s Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu 3-1.
Sushil Kumar reacts during his fight against Japan’s Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu in their Men’s 66kg Freestyle gold medal match. Photo: AFP
“My aim was gold,” the 29-year-old said after the loss. “I gave it my best, but couldn’t manage that, which leaves me somewhat disappointed. But after Beijing, I had promised I would change the colour of the medal, and I am happy that I did. There is no greater joy than seeing the national flag being hoisted at the Olympics.”
Kumar, who became the only Indian to win more than one individual medal at the Olympics, was not entirely happy with his silver, which points to the growing ambitions and self-belief among wrestlers in the country. Kumar’s bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—the first medal for India in wrestling since K.D. Jadhav won a bronze in 1952—was an unapologetic triumph.
Now even a silver, a best by an Indian wrestler, seems to be not enough. Kumar’s support staff was quick to point out he suffered from a bout of diarhhoea before his final. But Kumar himself offered no excuses.
“Yes, I did have some motions which caused some loss of weight,” he said. “But every athlete has some niggle or the other. I can’t say these were responsible for my defeat in the final.”
Yashvir Singh, part of the coaching staff, analysed Kumar’s bouts. “Sushil was focused, very relaxed,” Singh said. “He never got flustered, never tried to rush things. He was immensely motivated, and knew exactly what he was doing.”
A day before Kumar’s final, Yogeshwar Dutt won a bronze with a display of skill and stamina, winning three repechage bouts in the space of an hour. Combined with Kumar’s medal, this is India’s best ever performance in Olympic wrestling.
Repechage is system where losers to the eventual finalists in earlier rounds get a second chance to fight.
“The future is bright for Indian wrestling,” said Raj Singh, secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India. “These two wrestlers have given so much for the sport. This will open up the way for us to become a wrestling power.”
Jagdish Kaliraman, who runs the Chandgi Ram akhara in Delhi, and was one of India’s brightest wrestling talents in the 1990s, agrees. “It’s a new golden era for wrestling,” he said. “Our young wrestlers are now looking at new benchmarks. They will be more ambitious than before, more confident, and will believe they can win anything.”
Kumar, too, paid homage to the wrestling resurgence. “We have a lot of talent in the country,” he said. “Where I come from and train, there are several fine wrestlers. Hopefully, some of them will go on to achieve laurels for the country. The next Olympics, our performance will be even better. But it is important that wrestling gets support.”
A few months before the Olympics, Kumar had spoken to Mint about what motivates him. “One Olympic medal is not enough,” he had said. “The truly great wrestlers have won many Olympic medals, and many World Championships. Compared to them, I’m just beginning.”
There were more personal reasons too.
Kumar’s grandfather Hoshiar Singh was a local wrestler of repute, and Kumar had grown up hearing stories of his exploits in kushti. “He would go to various dangals (tournaments) to fight,” Kumar had said. “Some were 30-40km away from our village. He would start at night, walk all night, fight in the morning, win, and walk back home! I’ve always wanted to be like that, have that passion and energy. My grandfather died six months before I won my bronze in Beijing. I think of him every time I think about an Olympic medal.”
For now, after five months of incessant training and competitions, Kumar plans to rest, and take his mind off wrestling. For a brief while.