Over 50 athletes are training in full swing at the Chhatrasal Stadium wrestling hall in Delhi. The usual cacophony fills the room: Stocky men of muscle hit the mat with a thud; wrestlers scuffle and slap, trying to get a hold of their opponents; others warm up by running around the periphery of the hall; and coaches hoarsely scream instructions.
Yogeshwar Dutt, 29, is in a cinch with a training partner in the middle of the mat. Dutt looks like he is about to lose his balance, and spotting the opening, his opponent swoops on his ankle. In a movement almost too quick for the naked eye, Dutt sidesteps, and as his opponent’s momentum carries him towards the mat, Dutt swings around, grabs him by the waist, and takes him down.
Dutt is at his best when he’s at his most vulnerable—this is what makes him so dangerous in the wrestling arena. “I’m all about the attack,” Dutt says, “even while I’m defending, it’s with a counter-attack in mind.”
Put him down, and watch him rise.
He did it in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. In the final month leading up to the Games, Dutt would wrap up his practice sessions and head straight to the hospital in Delhi where his father was admitted with a terminal disease. Two days before Dutt was scheduled to leave for Doha, his father died. Dutt was all set to drop out of the team. “I went only because my family and friends told me that I should go ahead, keep doing what I’m doing,” he says. “They told me that those who have left us are not coming back.”
Courage under fire: Yogeshwar Dutt (in red). Photo by Divya Babu/Mint.
So Dutt tapped into the reserves of his inner strength, and stepped into the arena. He numbed his mind, ate and slept and fought without thinking, and he hardly spoke to anyone. He made it all the way to the semi-finals, and won a bronze. “But there was no happiness,” he says. “I was just blank. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it taught me a great lesson—never back down.”
Two years later, Dutt proved his wrestling credentials beyond doubt by winning the 2008 Asian Championships, becoming the first Indian in 21 years to do so. In the wrestling circle, Dutt was then seen as India’s best medal prospect for the 2008 Beijing Games. He almost fulfilled those expectations—he was a match away from a medal fight when he lost in the quarter-finals in Beijing.
But almost is not good enough. Dutt’s compatriot Sushil Kumar walked away with a bronze at the Olympics that year, making him an instant national hero.
This time around, Dutt, who has retained his status as one of the top wrestlers in the world in the 60kg freestyle category, has quietly booked his place for the 2012 London Games, his third straight Olympics. There was little fuss around his qualification. Kumar, who had been defeated in two different qualifying events, finally made the cut for the Games on 27 April.
Yet again, Dutt will be going into the Olympics after bouncing back from adversity. He tore a ligament in his knee in 2009, and spent nine months in South Africa for surgery and rehabilitation. This was organized by the Mittal Champions Trust, a not-for-profit body that helps Indian athletes with funding and expertise.
His plan to fight before a home crowd at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi was almost derailed. He put it on track at the last minute, pouring all his energy and will into his training and rehabilitation to get back on the mat in time for the tournament. Then, watched by family and friends, he won a gold. “Every victory has a different meaning, a different feel,” Dutt says. “Every one of them has changed the way I look at the sport, even the way I look at life. All this experience, all the things I did right, the lessons from the mistakes I made... I need them all to come together at this Olympics.”
It’s at the nondescript akhara at Chhatrasal stadium that both Dutt and Kumar began their careers on the mat, after being initiated into the traditional form of Indian wrestling, practised in mud pits, in their villages.
Dutt was just 7 when he got his first taste of the game at the traditional akhara in Bhainswal, his village in Haryana. “It was just pure fun,” he says. “The perfect game—you got dirty in the mud, and your parents didn’t scold you. What could be better?” Though Dutt’s family doesn’t have a strong heritage of wrestling, most of his uncles and nephews have dabbled in the sport at some time or the other. But for Dutt, it quickly turned into an addiction. “I felt like never leaving the akhara,” he says. “I would often just lie there in the cool mud for hours after the training was over.”
By the time he was 9, Dutt was already fighting at a dozen dangals, or local wrestling tournaments, in a year. “It was a great time,” he says. “I would go to various villages and akharas to fight in these tournaments. There were always hundreds of people who would come to watch, and I would earn 50 paise for every fight I won.” By 13, Dutt was winning national school-level tournaments, and had moved in as a resident trainee at Chhatrasal Stadium, entering an athlete’s life of structured training at one of India’s best wrestling centres.
It was only then that he discovered wrestling wasn’t just confined to village dangals but had global appeal. “It was almost impossible for me to comprehend where you can go with a sport that just a few years back was something I did for fun,” Dutt says. “I did have a vague idea that pehelwans (wrestlers) even went outside India for kushti, but it was only now that I began to understand the sport’s potential.”
In 1999, at 16, Dutt went for his first international tournament—the World Cadet Championship in Poland. “It was incredibly exciting,” he says. “Everything was new for me—I saw an airport for the first time, got into an aeroplane for the first time. But I was not nervous at all, it was just too much of a thrill.” Dutt won a gold at the tournament, cementing his reputation as one of India’s most promising new wrestlers.
From then on, it has been a steady rise through the ranks for Dutt, though medals at the Olympics and world championships have eluded him. “This is it,” Dutt says. “This has to be the turning point for me. I’ve waited for a long time, I’ve prepared, I’ve worked harder than ever before, and I’ve trained smarter. Now I just have to do what I know I can.”
As one of the most experienced international wrestlers in India, Dutt knows that the onus is on him, and that if he fails to make his mark in London, it might be his last appearance at the Olympics. But these are thoughts for another day.
“All I can do is train and focus on my strengths, and keep myself sharp physically and mentally,” Dutt says. “No one can predict what will happen on the mat.”
For the man whose role model is the Russian pehelwan Buvaisar Hamidovich Saitiev, six-time world champion and thrice Olympic champion, the first Olympic medal beckons.
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