New Delhi: All is right with Indian arm-wrestling. And that’s a problem.

To the uneducated eye, both of Sandeep Dhama’s arms look equally beefy. With his right hand, he can—and does—beat down nearly every contender on the arm-wrestling table, set at one end of the crowded, tube-lit Power Maniac gym. But nature constructed Dhama to be a left-hander. “That’s the arm that is more powerful," he says. “But I can’t compete in the national championships left-handed, so I have to play with my right."

Power struggle: Sandeep Dhama (left) and another arm-wrestler Devender Kumar wrestle it out at the Power Maniac gym while Dhama’s coach Laxman Bhandari (middle, wearing pink shirt) looks on. Sanjay Arora / Mint

More than 30 years after the Indian Armwrestling Federation (IAF) registered itself and began to hold tournaments, left-handers remain outside the heat of competitive arm-wrestling, forced to either switch arms or give up the sport altogether. One reason, says Dhama’s coach Laxman Bhandari, a former national medallist himself, is that too few show up to hold meaningful contests. But left-handers also need specially constructed tables, with elbow-pads and supports placed in different symmetries. Tables cost money—Rs2,500-3,000 for the most basic model—and for a sport still not recognized by the government, it is cheaper to convert left-handers into right-handers.

National tournaments notwithstanding, arm-wrestling in India still carries the whiff of the schoolyard with it. “I can set up a table here right now," Bhandari says, indicating the side of the road, “and you’ll see the crowd that will collect." At the evening sessions at Power Maniac, every bout attracts a tight knot of absorbed onlookers. The serious amateurs largely fund their own trips to championships, train as best as they can, and wait for arm-wrestling to be deemed a sport.

When that will happen is open to debate; Bhandari pins his hopes on a forthcoming November meeting of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). But the process has not been helped by a recent split in IAF. One faction is based in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, and one of its officials, Manoj Nayar, claims that last year, a court in Kolkata gave it the right to be registered as the “Indian Armwrestling Federation".

“We’re the ones who were awarded the records from the last 30 years and the original registration document," Nayar says. It is to this body that Bhandari, general secretary of the Armwrestling Association of Delhi, belongs.

The other faction is based, for all intents and purposes, out of the offices of its honorary president Tom Vadakkan, secretary of the All India Congress Committee—not perhaps the first person to come to mind where arm-wrestling is concerned, although certainly one who has conducted single-handed battle against opponents on television.

Vadakkan received the request to be president six months ago. “It’s a game for everybody, because it doesn’t require much infrastructure," he says.

“It only needs the aam aadmi ka haath (the common man’s hand)." Then, alive to the symbolism of that statement, he hastens to add: “Not that I mean it politically." Vadakkan insists that his IAF is the authentic one: “One has to look at which body represents more people, and who is sending more people to competitions."

By that count, Nayar’s IAF claims to possess a slim upper hand. Nayar counts affiliated units in nearly every state, six of them even having been recognized by their state’s Olympic associations.

Scraping together sufficient funds, this IAF also sent seven contestants to the world championships in Venice in September, conducted by the sport’s apex body: the World Armwrestling Federation. “We didn’t win any medals," Bhandari admits.

“But that’s because our medal prospects couldn’t find the money to go."

On the other hand, Vadakkan’s IAF registered a bronze medal at a smaller meet held in Egypt last month. Faijaz V.P., a security officer employed with—and sponsored by—Air Arabia, lives in Goa, and competes in the 86kg weight category; in Egypt, he lost narrowly to an American arm-wrestler. He tries to train exactly as Sylvester Stallone did in the classic arm-wrestling movie Over the Top. “I don’t have any partners to train with," he says. “So I wrestle against my colleague, a state-ranked arm-wrestler. I even allow him to use both hands."

Which of these two federations survives to run arm-wrestling in India may well be decided by IOA, if and when it recognizes the sport. The heft of Nayar’s IAF will then be pitted against Vadakkan’s political muscle. In the near future, this will be the arm-wrestling bout best worth watching.