Bajrang Punia had a below par outing at the start of his campaign. In his first game of the day, he won the bout by the barest of margins. He beat Kyrgyzstan's Arnazar Akmataliev despite their scores being level at 3-3 since he scored a higher-point move.
Punia's defensive display continued in the 1/4 finals. The Indian received two passivity warnings during the bout. The only occasion where he showed positive intent and came up with an attack, he managed to pin his opponent and won by fall.
But Punia was outclassed in the semifinal by Haji Aliyev. The Azerbaijan wrestler was ahead of him throughout the bout and did not let the Indian get a hold over the match. Aliyev even managed a footlay during their bout to send Punia helplessly spinning around the mat.
However, Bajrang Punia's coach, Shako Bentinidis, claims the referees cost Punia the match. Speaking to the media after the bout, he said:
“I know what I’m speaking. The knee didn’t cost him the match. It was this side [the referees]. The referees today were unfair. This affected Bajrang psychologically. He didn’t give Bajrang a chance to attack. I know it [doesn’t look good] speaking about referee after losing by 7 points but the referee killed the game psychologically today.”
He further added:
“I’ve told him that referee will never be fair. You always start with a disadvantage. Be it Kazakhstan or any other. But that is no reason [to lose], you must look at your own performance. So you must give everything. You cannot afford to make mistakes.”
Bajrang Punia will now be competing for a bronze medal. He will face the winner of the repechage round match between Senegal's Diatta and Kazakhstan's Niyazbekov. On the importance of tomorrow's bout, Shako said:
“Same. It’s like a final. He must get a medal. This is an important situation. If you go to the final, you have an assured second place. But tomorrow, you have nothing to give away. You need to have double concentration.”
A psychological test awaits Bajrang Punia
Shako also stated that the Olympics is a tournament that requires great mental strength. He highlighted that tomorrow will be a fresh start for Bajrang. He said:
“This is a competition very different from the Asian Games and World Championships. This is psychological. Not much difference in physicality, just psychological.”
Bajrang Punia was the last wrestler left in the Indian contingent who could have won India a wrestling gold medal. However, Indian fans would still be backing their grappler to find a place on the podium.
The 27-year-old from Haryana would also love to return with something to show for his efforts at the Tokyo Olympics. Will he manage? We'll find out soon enough.
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