There will be a huge burden of expectation when the seven-member Indian wrestling contingent - four women and three men - competes at the Tokyo Olympic Games beginning July 23.
Not only has the team of seven freestyle wrestlers the task of living up to the reputation of Sushil Kumar, India’s only individual double Olympic medallist, but also a commitment to lift the sport from the negativity surrounding it in the wake of some recent developments involving its most revered icon.
Even as the Sushil saga lingers on, a pre-Olympic departure ‘tradition’ is being ‘followed’ as a top grappler, Sumit Malik — who had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at the World Olympic qualifier event in Sofia — contests a provisional two-year suspension for failing a dope test.
If it was Narsingh Yadav who grabbed the attention before the 2016 Rio Olympics, a similar drama is being enacted before the contingent departs for Tokyo, taking the spotlight away from some of the potential medal hopefuls such as Vinesh Phogat, Sonam Malik and Bajrang Punia.
Vinesh, who has made Budapest her training base, is perhaps the best medal hope for the country after sealing India’s Olympic quota in the 53kg category at the 2019 World Championships with a bronze at Nur-Sultan.
Vinesh’s desire to win at all cost has got to do with the disappointment of exiting the 2016 Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals owing to a serious knee injury. With her kind of commitment, Vinesh could well overshadow Sakshi Malik’s achievement at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she won bronze in the 58kg category.
Those who remember Vinesh being stretchered out of the arena in 2016 Rio, writhing in pain and crying inconsolably, would know how desperately she wanted to win the medal. Tipped as one of the medal favourites, Vinesh’s campaign seemed on course before the freak injury cut her journey short.
“Following that injury, I was not keeping well mentally, with the thought that the injury could recur anytime. But I want to finish what I have started. I consider it (injury) as a positive in that sense. I’m prepared for it (Tokyo) mentally and I think I have done enough preparation for the Games," Vinesh was quoted as saying recently.
Vinesh’s strength has been her resolve and she, along with another committed grappler, Bajrang Punia (65kg), cornered glory at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
Recently Vinesh won her maiden Asian Championship gold medal at Almaty after two silver-medal finishes in 2017 and 18. In fact, it was her third gold in 2021, after beating the 2017 world champion in a tournament in Ukraine followed by a dominant show in the prestigious Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series event.
While Vinesh turned her 2014 Incheon Asian Games bronze into gold with an electrifying performance in Jakarta, Punia gave a golden hue to his Incheon silver in Jakarta. That set in motion a process which has today made them strong contenders for medals in Tokyo and aim to improve upon Sushil’s silver at 2012 London.
Though their training is progressing well, there was a minor scare recently as Punia suffered a right-knee injury during a local tournament in Russia, He came off the mat following his semi-final bout limping, but Punia’s Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis allayed those fears and said his ward is fit for the Olympic challenge.
Teenager Sonam Malik, who hails from Madina village in Sonipat, could be the dark horse in the Indian contingent as at the age of only 19, she is giving one commanding performance after another in domestic and international competitions.
Having beaten Sakshi, 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist, four times in the span of a year - three times in trials — has meant that Sonam could be knocking at the doors of stardom - if not at the Tokyo Olympics, then at Paris in 2024.
Men: Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Deepak Punia (86kg)
Women: Seema Bisla (50kg), Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Anshu Malik (57kg), Sonam Malik (62kg).