Bajrang The Key As Wrestlers Aim To Improve Asiad Showing
In Incheon, it was Yogeshwar Dutt who won gold, but this time around it’s his protégé, Bajrang Punia, who’s been tagged as a favourite to win the yellow metal in the 65 kg category.
Bajrang Punia. (Image Credits: Twitter)
Like shooting, wrestling at the Asian Games offers the kind of competition that the World Championships or the Olympic Games does. An 18-member Indian squad is in Jakarta-Palembang to try and improve on the previous edition’s haul of five medals which included one gold.
In Incheon, it was Yogeshwar Dutt who won gold, but this time around it’s his protégé, Bajrang Punia, who’s been tagged as a favourite to win the yellow metal in the 65 kg category. With a hat-trick of golds (Commonwealth Games, Yasar Dogu International in Turkey, Tbilisi Grand Prix in Georgia) in his kitty, Punia could not have asked for a better Asian Games build up. In Turkey in fact, he decided to fight above his weight category. “It was a conscious decision so that I had the time and comfort to lose weight and return to normal for Asiad so that I can give my best,” he says. Punia is likely to face stiff competition from Japan’s Daichi Takatani.
Sushil Kumar, the most accomplished and decorated among the Indian wrestlers, doesn’t have an Asian Games title. The 2-time Olympic medallist’s Asian Games preparations were dealt a crushing blow when he lost to an unheard of Polish grappler in the first round of the Tbilisi Grand Prix. The Wrestling Federation of India allowed him to skip the Asian Games trials to prepare for Jakarta, and instead undergo extensive training in Georgia. At 35 though, Sushil isn’t the Sushil of the old. His reflexes are slower, many say. The last four years, he’s been grappling injuries and controversies. But there’s no way he’s giving up.
At the Commonwealth Games this year, he redeemed himself somewhat with a gold medal that he won without breaking a sweat. But the Asian Games 74kg category event will see him fight it out against some of the world class wrestlers like Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran of Mongolia, and Muslim Evloev of Kyrgyzstan. Sushil’s performance in Jakarta will be a good indication of whether the veteran has it in him to go till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or not.
Among the women, Vinesh remains India’s best bet despite the presence of Olympic bronze medalist Sakshi Malik. After Geeta and Babita Phogat, Vinesh has carried forward the legacy and would not like to settle anything less than a gold at the Asiad.
The 23-year-old would like to conquer her nemesis — China’s Sun Yanan against whom she suffered an untimely injury at the Rio Olympics in 2016. The duo faced-off at the Pro Wrestling League too, but the Indian lost once again. Phogat, now would like to set the record straight.
For Malik, the year has been forgettable, as she had to settle for bronze at the Commonwealth Games. She will certainly be an underdog in the 62kg class in a field that is dominated by Mongolia’s Purevdorjiin Orkhon, the reigning world champion.
The Indian had beaten her at the 2016 Olympics, but since then Orkhon has grown in stature and won the Asian Championships too. So winning a medal in a strong field could be a tough nut to crack.
What could be detrimental for India’s chances on the mat is the fact that the wrestling teams have been sans the services of a foreign coach since 2016. Though the Wrestling Federation of India had shown interest in appointing Iran’s Hossein Karimi and Russia’s Farniev Irbek Valentinovich, but the move is yet to materialise. This could just mean that the Indian wrestlers might not be adequately prepared.
The Indian wrestlers have also been struggling to adapt to the new weighing in rule introduced by the international body. Unlike the past when the weighing in of the participants took place a day before their fights, the wrestlers are now weighed on the day of their contests. Earlier, the Indian wrestlers who cut down their weight to make it to a particular weight category had a full day to recover. This included cutting down on intake of water to lose weight but under the new clause, losing weight on the day of the bout drastically can be tricky, adversely affecting the stamina and strength along with chances of dehydration.
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