Has Sushil Kumar won his last medal?
Gold Coast, Australia: Watching Sushil Kumar on the podium to receive his third Commonwealth Games gold here at the Carrara Stadium, there was a strong feeling that this may well have been his swansong. As he exited the arena, he seemed to take an involuntary (or was it otherwise) glance back, making one wonder whether it was the last time the legend was leaving a mat.
When he did speak, he seemed to speak in riddles and gave no indication of what he had in mind for the future, but logic suggests there is little left that can bring him to the mat.
The latest gold, which made him the first Indian wrestler to win three gold medals, came exactly 20 years after his first major success—a gold at the 1998 World Cadet Wrestling. Lasting two decades in a sport as physical as wrestling is surely a monumental achievement.
Few sportspersons have enjoyed the iconic status that Sushil has had during his distinguished career. He belongs to a club so exclusive that it is still waiting for a second member: No Indian has won two individual Olympic medals.
Prior to Gold Coast, Sushil’s only international appearance since the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games was the relatively less stressful 2017 Johannesburg Commonwealth Championships. In Australia, he did not have to break much sweat to win his third gold.
None of his four bouts went the distance and the final against South African Johannes Botha lasted a mere 80 seconds. Sushil went 10-0 up to win by technical superiority. Sushil won three (against Jevon Balfour, Muhammad Butt and the final against Botha) by technical superiority and one by a fall (against Evans Connor in the semi-finals).
There is little that Sushil has not won. He has one World Championships gold, three Commonwealth Games golds, five Commonwealth Championships golds and one Asian Championships gold, but the crown jewels have to be the Olympic silver (2012) and Olympic bronze (2008).
His Achilles heel in a manner of speaking has been the Asian Games, where he has had only moderate success—a single bronze from 2006 in Doha.
An Olympic medal in 2020 (when he will be 37) would be far-fetched, but he may harbour dreams of a gold at the 2018 Asian Games. But even that is highly unlikely.
Having opted out of the 2017 World Championships, he is also unlikely for the 2019 Worlds. So the Asian Games in August-September this year would be the only major event from here on and it is generally well-accepted that the Asian Games present a far tougher contest than both Commonwealth Games and Championships.
Sushil, a month short of 35, has twice in the past opted out of the Asian Games. In 2010, when he won an unprecedented hat-trick of gold medals—World Championship, Commonwealth Games and Asian Championships—he opted out of the Asian Games citing an injury and saying he was preparing for the 2012 Olympics, where he won silver.
Four years later he won gold at Glasgow but opted out of the Asiad saying he wanted to prepare for the 2016 Olympics. But he did not make the team and was instead embroiled in a bitter controversy and India went unrepresented in his category at Rio.
Sushil did not compete for almost three years after the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But with an eye on the 2017 Commonwealth Championships and the 2018 Games, he entered the National Championships in Indore. But each of his rivals either touched his feet and withdrew or did not even turn up. Amid greater controversy Sushil became a national champion with three walkovers.
Sushil went on to win the Commonwealth Championships for a record fifth time and it helped him make the team for Gold Coast, where he breezed past all opponents.
But now as he exited the arena it seemed an unsaid goodbye. Is it?