Can Sakshi Malik make it to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? 

Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10
Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10
Sarah Waris

Sakshi Malik created waves when she returned with a historical bronze medal in the Rio Olympics, an event that was defined by the under-par performance of the wrestling top guns. The grappler had gone on to defeat Aisuluu Tynybekova 8-5 in a sensational women’s freestyle bout in the 58 kg weight division to become the first wrestler from the country to return with a medal from the grandest stage. Overturning a 0-5 deficit, then, Sakshi displayed her fighting spirit and never-say-die-attitude as she etched her name in the sporting history books of the country.

Four years since, the 27-year old is struggling to seal her spot in the Summer Games that will be held from July, with her presence in Tokyo resting on the performance of Sonam Malik in the Asian Wrestling Championships that is currently underway in New Delhi. The two-time World Cadet champion, Sonam, had stunned Sakshi at the National trials in early January 2020, which was conducted for three events - the Rome Ranking Series, the Asian Championships and the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Lucknow.

Trailing 4-6 in the second period, Sonam produced a four-point throw with just seconds to go to make it 10-10 to win the contest on the basis of scoring the last point. She then defeated Radhika in the finals 4-1 to seal her spot for the three events in the 62 kg weight category. However, the President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh later admitted that if the performance of the wrestlers were unimpressive ahead of the Qualifiers, the WFI could host fresh trials to determine who stood a chance to compete for Tokyo.

Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10
Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10
“If we find that performances of our wrestlers are not satisfying at the first two events, we can have fresh trials to select wrestlers for the Asian Olympic qualifier. We want to send our best wrestler so that India can have the maximum number of quotas for Olympics,” he had said.

It thus, meant, that Sonam had to impress in both the Rome Ranking Series and the Asian Championships to participate in the Asian Qualifiers. She, however, lost her opening bout in Rome by technical superiority against Macey Ellen Kilty of America, and will now have to pitch in with a medal-winning showing at New Delhi to keep her Olympic dreams alive. Sakshi, who is competing in the non-Olympic 65 kg weight division in the Asian Championships, too will be hoping to end on the podium. It will be a do-or-die competition for her, as anything less might mean that the WFI pushes Sonam to compete at the Qualifiers, irrespective of how she fares in the current competition. Considering Sakshi’s current form, backing a young teenager in Sonam to seal a quota spot for India might not be the worst move.

Sakshi’s failing returns since the Olympic bronze medal

After the Olympics in Rio, Sakshi has returned empty-handed in all the World Championships that she has participated in since then, and ended out of the top ten in 2017 and 2018. Her only noteworthy showings have been at the Asian Championships, where she has won a silver and two bronze in the last three years. She also clinched a gold at the 2017 Commonwealth Championships and got a bronze in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast the following year (via repechage), but in global events, the dip is all but evident. She crashed out of the Yasar Dogu International before reaching the medal round in 2018, and her bad form continued at the Asian Games in 2018 as she finished fifth, which prompted the federation to hand over a Grade B contract to Sakshi.

Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10
Wrestling - Commonwealth Games Day 10

2019 was yet another dismal year for the Haryana grappler as she was not only ousted in the opening round of the World Championships, where she went down to Aminat Adeniyi of Nigeria 7-10, but was also hauled up by the WFI for her lack of commitment towards the game. Her decision to skip national camps and her increasing tales of indiscipline further cast a shadow over the Olympic medalist, and Sakshi was soon in the eye of the storm, as she was warned about her dwindling performances.

Taking their words to heart, the athlete turned up at the South Asian Games (SAG) in Nepal last December, even as most compatriots decided to skip the event. “It doesn’t matter whether the tournament is big or small. If I can compete in nationals, then why not in the SAG. They (competitions) boost your confidence level. I don’t want to skip any events as each of them teach us something,” the wrestler had told The New Indian Express.

The move not only highlighted Sakshi’s hurt at no longer being considered a champion - she has been dropped from TOPS as well - but also highlighted her determination to set things straight, possibly for the final time in her career.

And that also seems the reason why she opted for a non-Olympic category to compete in at the Asian Championships. Taking the unconventional path to Tokyo, Sakshi prefers participating and correcting her technical flaw of not being able to finish off games in the dying stages rather than sit idle and wait for her future to be determined by Sonam’s showing.

The journey to Japan might be a tough one, but Sakshi’s eyes are firmly fixed on the Olympics - the very same event that had helped her become the cynosure of all eyes.

Edited by Kingshuk Kusari


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