India has arguably fielded the best wrestling team at the Tokyo Olympics in recent years. Boasting the world and continental medalists, medal hopes are high from Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat's starring wrestling side.
But the seven wrestlers at the Tokyo Olympics are heroes to a sequel of a script written way before their emergence. It took just 70 minutes for the history maker to put Indian wrestling on the world map.
The hero of Indian wrestling
In possibly every akhara (wrestling school), there will be a wrestler who idolizes Sushil Kumar. He is the epitome of what Indian wrestling stands for – endurance, perseverance and hard work.
Ask Bajrang Punia, who will represent India in 65 kg at the Tokyo Olympics, what Sushil did for Indian wrestling. This is what he had to say:
“Sushil Pahelwanji (wrestler) made us believe that winning a medal at the Olympics is possible for us (Indians) too."
India’s first Olympic medalist female wrestler Sakshi Malik echoes her male counterpart.
“That medal at the Olympics changed everything for me. I just had one thing in mind after that. I have to win a medal for my country,” she says.
Sushil is not the first Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal in wrestling. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav was the Indian (wrestler) of Independent India to win a medal at the Olympics (1952).
It took India 56 years to repeat Jadhav’s heroics at the quadrennial event.
The game changing 70 minutes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
Overcoming the odds time and again is something Sushil Kumar is very much acquainted with. He continued the same at the 2008 Beijing Games. After losing to Sweden’s Andriy Stadnik 8-1 in the first round, the Najafgarh-born grappler needed to win three repechage bouts.
He had 70 minutes to win India its first Olympic medal (in wrestling) since 1952.
Sushil Kumar did not disappoint.
The Indian grappler is unique amongst the wrestlers India has produced. He was not known for his stamina or speed on the mat, something which is synonymous with Indian wrestlers. Instead, it was his brute force which he used to take down opponents.
In the first repechage round he defeated Doug Schwab (USA) 7-4. It was followed by a 8-4 victory over Albert Batyrov (BLR).
In the bronze medal match, his opponent was Asian Champion Leonid Spiridonov. The Kazakhstan wrestler was dubbed the favorite to win the playoff bout as wrestling experts played down Sushil.
“After I had won the first round, my opponent got a grip position advantage and won the second round. The third round was similar as he [Leonid Spiridonov] won the toss and got to grip my leg again,” Sushil Kumar had revealed during The Medal of Glory show on Sony Sports’ Facebook page last year.
However, Sushil knew exactly what to do during such situations.
“I knew I had to escape his grip anyhow and my coach [Satpal Singh] had told me not to give up till the very end," he added.
Sushil won the thriller 3-2 to win India a bronze medal. It took him three matches and 70 minutes to make history.
He bettered his 2008 Beijing performance at the 2012 London Games. Sushil Kumar became the first individual Indian athlete to win two Olympic medals. He won silver.
Sushil last competed at the 2019 world championship in a bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. He finished 20th and failed to get into India's Tokyo Olympics quota in 74 kg.
What are India’s chances for winning medal in wrestling at the Tokyo Olympics?
Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia will start as the favorites to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Vinesh will take the mat in 53 kg women’s wrestling as the top seed at the Tokyo Olympics. The 2019 world medalist has been in red-hot form this year. She has won three gold medals in three competitions this year.
Bajrang too has been in good form. He has been seeded second in a star-studded weight category at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ravi Dahiya (57 kg) will also be a strong favorite in 57 kg freestyle. However, all eyes will be on Anshu Malik (57 kg women’s), who has been a revelation for India. The teenager has been pitted as a dark horse in a weight division which boasts multiple Olympic and world medalists at the Tokyo Olympics.
Deepak Punia (86 kg) and Seema Bisla (50 kg) are the other wrestlers who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.