Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Virender Singh | Gold, naturally

Unsung and neglected, Virender Singh continues to do what he does best—win medals at the top international wrestling competitions in the world.

Singh, 28, won his third straight medal, at the 2013 Deaflympics in Bulgaria, a gold in the men’s 74kg Freestyle event. It’s the only medal won by an Indian athlete at the 2013 Deaflympics, but it’s nothing new for Singh.

He won India’s first gold medal at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne, Australia, picked up a silver medal at the second World Deaf Wrestling Championships in 2008 in Yerevan, Armenia, and a bronze at the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. Last year, he won a bronze at the 2012 World Deaf Wrestling Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. This year’s gold at the Deaflympics brings Singh’s tally to five medals at the only five international tournaments he has participated in.

“He is a very skilled wrestler," says Sushil Kumar, India’s double Olympic medallist in wrestling, who has trained with Singh at Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi. “He is strong, he is quick, and it’s extremely difficult to take him down".

Singh has left no room for doubt about his wrestling prowess, and just how good he is at the very top level of the game. But Singh can’t hear, and he talks in sign language—it’s not something that holds him back inside the wrestling arena. But outside the mat, it’s a different story. Despite his rich haul of medals at the Deaflympics and world championships, Singh has never seen any awards or monetary compensation come his way. In fact, his struggles remain as gritty now as it was back in 2005, when he won his first Deaflympics medal.

“Nothing has changed," Singh says through an interpreter. “I still have two pairs of clothes to train in. One pair of shoes. No one has given me anything because of my performances. But it’s okay. I am a very happy man. I get to do what I love".

In 2005, Singh had to pay himself to make his way to the Deaflympics, where he was the lone Indian wrestler. It was exactly the same for the 2008 World Deaf Wrestling Championships. This time, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) paid his expenses for the 2013 Deaflympics, but not before protracted infighting between two rival factions, the All India Sports Council of the Deaf (AISCD) almost scuppered his chances of participation. Mark Cooper, the CEO of the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) had to fly in to Delhi this March and work out a formula which would allow Indian athletes to take part in the Deaflympics after it was clear that the AISCD won’t be able to resolve its issues in time. The SAI stepped in to temporarily take over the training and funding of the athletes.

“The athletes will participate under the Indian flag as part of the special consideration given to them by the International Committee for Deaf Sports," Cooper had told reporters at that time.

It has been more than a week since Singh came back with the Deaflympics gold, but he has received neither rewards nor accolades in India.

At Chhatrasal Stadium, Singh trains with wrestlers who can hear and speak, but he has never fought an official tournament in India on mat. That’s because no mat tournament in India makes the simple provision of providing a referee who will signal stops and starts by a tactile or visual clue instead of a whistle. Singh competes in dangals, traditional wrestling competitions on mud, instead.

In 2001, a 16-year-old Singh was selected for the trials for the World Cadet Wrestling Championships. He came first in the trials, but the Wrestling Federation of India decided not to send him because he is deaf, say Singh and his coaches.

“I learnt later that deaf athletes can take part in all games, including the Olympics," Singh says. People with hearing loss are free to compete at the Olympics and in the 2012 London Games, there were three deaf athletes in the US contingent.

Singh is now determined to give the 2016 Rio Olympics a shot.

“We are pushing the authorities to make provisions for him at the trials," says Ramphal Singh, a senior coach at Chhatrasal Stadium, who also trains Singh. “He has won so many medals now, they really should give him this chance".

Expect Singh to do what he does best—quietly win. If only he is given a fighting chance, something he has earned many times over.

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