A seven-member wrestling contingent is representing India at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, some of which are considered major medal opportunities. For the records, they have returned with at least one medal in each of the last three editions of the mega-event. Can they maintain the streak?
Wrestling has so far picked up India five medals at the Olympics, the second most for any discipline (after hockey) and the most for individual events. The legendary athlete KD Jadhav claimed India’s first medal in Wrestling at the Helsinki Games in 1952. However, it has been a long wait since then. Sushil Kumar finally ended the drought at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by winning a bronze medal in the 66kg men’s freestyle event.
The 2012 London Olympics were the best outing in terms of Indian wrestling, with India finishing on the podium twice. Sushil Kumar improved his record at the Games with a silver medal, while Yogeshwar bolle secured a silver medal in men’s 60kg freestyle event.
At the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik made history by becoming the first female Indian wrestler to claim an Olympic medal when she claimed a bronze medal by virtue of repechage combat in women’s 58kg freestyle event. A strong contingent of seven members is ready to play at the Games in Tokyo next month, with some of them considered big medal opportunities.
Now let’s look at the Indian wrestling team (men) –
Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57 kg category, freestyle)
It has been a great sacrifice for Ravi Dahiya and his family since the day he started wrestling at the age of 10 at Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi. Working as a farmer on leased paddy fields, his father, Rakesh, immersed himself in the daily errand of traveling every day from Nahri (Haryana) to the stadium to deliver milk and fruit, which was part of Ravi’s wrestling diet. The combined hard grinding was not unrewarding.
The dividend began to land in 2015 when he claimed the silver medal at the Junior World Wrestling Championships. After a two-year gap, the grabber was re-established with a second place finish at the U-23 World Championships in 2018. However, his greatest achievement to date remains the bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in Nur Sultan, giving him a ticket to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.
Despite several hiccups in the build-up to the Olympics due to the pandemic situation, Ravi still managed to claim tops at the 2020 and 2021 Asian Wrestling Championships, respectively. While not a direct medal contender, the Haryana-based athlete is quite capable of pulling the unexpected. The 23-year-old is moving his training base to Russia until the Olympics in Tokyo arrive.
Bajrang Punia (65 kg men freestyle)
From looking up to wrestlers as superheroes to skipping classes and attending wrestling classes in mud-breaking schools, Bajrang Punia had his intentions pretty clear from an early age. Energized by his father, also a former wrestler, the whole family moved to Sonepat in Delhi so that the aspiring athlete can attend training sessions at the regional SAI (Sports Authority of India) center. In line with the norms, success soon followed.
However, his first major break appeared at the 2013 World Cup when he won a bronze medal. A year later, Punia gained worldwide fame by awarding silver medals in a row at the Commonwealth and Asian Games respectively in 2014. In the following editions of the above multi-sporting events, Bajrang enhanced the color of the shade. In the middle of the medal race, he was not in conflict with the Olympics in Rio 2016, as the category 61 kg was not part of the Games.
Considering future prospects, Bajrang switched to the 65 kg category and it clicked. The World Cup medal in 2018 (silver) and 2019 (bronze) was enough to establish itself as a powerhouse in the weight category. The top-podium finish at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome, earlier this year, justifies the form he is running in the build-up to the Games. Bajrang Punia is undoubtedly a great medal prospect.
Deepak Punia (Men’s 86kg Freestyle)
The youngest of the party, Deepak Punia’s father and grandfather, were professional wrestlers who quickly traced his introduction to martial arts at the age of 4. He came from the Jhajjar district, an area that has produced dozens of national wrestlers, and Deepak came straight out of the breeding ground and grew up in the ideal environment. Originally, he used to walk around with his cousin in local tournaments and soon began competing in them.
But pushing the limit was only possible after he switched to Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi, where he was nurtured by India’s greatest wrestler ever – Sushil Kumar. The two-time Olympic medalist has been his mentor ever since, and Deepak has attributed most of his success to the living legend. Although the gold medal win at the World Cadet Championships in 2016 marked his arrival, the Asian Junior Championships and a second place at the 2018 Junior World Championships triumphed his career in the long run.
But 2019 proved to be a career-defining year for the wrestler as he continued to grab medals at the Junior World Championships (silver), Asian wrestling championships (bronze) and the world championships (silver). The star show was enough to secure a berth for the Olympics in Tokyo 2021. After missing the Matteo Pellicone Trophy earlier this year, Deepak travels to Russia to increase his preparations ahead of the fourth-year event.