It had been a completely fruitless campaign for India at the Rio Olympics 2016 until yesterday, when Sakshi Malik finally got the nation on the medal scoreboard. The positive change of fortunes that one-and-a-quarter billion people were so desperate to witness finally came to pass as wrestling, a traditional favourite sport in India, flagged off at the Carioca Arena 2 in Rio.
Our wrestlers have fetched four Olympic medals from the past three editions now, the first being Sushil Kumar’s Beijing 2008 bronze, followed by his silver and Yogeshwar Dutt’s bronze medal at the London Games in 2012, and now Sakshi's bronze in 2016.
But as we all know, Sakshi lost in the quarterfinal yesterday to eventual finalist Valeria Koblova. How then did she still manage to win a bronze?
The answer is the unique rule in wrestling called the 'Repechage’, which is explained below using the example of other Indian wrestlers.
Eight Indian wrestlers qualified for the Rio Olympics featuring in each of Men’s Freestyle, Women’s Freestyle and Men’s Greco-Roman competitions. On the opening day, Ravinder Khatri bowed out to Hungarian Viktor Lorincz in the Round of 16 of Men’s Greco-Roman 85 kg.
But Khatri would have still been in with a shot at bronze had Lorincz earned a place in the gold-medal bout. Such a scenario is allowed by the Repechage system that is meant to provide the top contenders who get eliminated in the earlier rounds with a fair chance to make the podium.
Every wrestler who’s been defeated by the two eventual finalists during the knockouts, participates in the repechage rounds – with two bronze medals, one for each finalist’s best rival – up for grabs. To explain this, Yogeshwar’s 2012 Olympic Bronze would serve as another fine example:
Yogi had been eliminated as early as the Round of 16 in the Men’s 60kg Freestyle wrestling by Besik Kudukhov of Russia, who then went on to take silver after reaching the finale. Contesting in the first round of Repechage, the Indian first faced Puerto Rican Franklin Gomez – who Kudukhov had ousted in the qualifiers.
Edging past Gomez, Yogeshwar squared off against Kudukhov’s quarter-final opponent Masoud Esmaeilpour of Iran in the Repechage Round 2, for a place in the bronze medal match. A victory in that bout sealed Yogeshwar's place in the bronze medal match from Kudukhov’s half of the draw, where he overpowered Ri Jong-Myong of North Korea to secure India’s second wrestling medal at London 2012.
In the above diagram, assume 1 and 16 made it to the finals.
-> Those who lost to 1 and 16 (2,3,5 and 15,13,9) respectively have been circled, and they will compete separately for the bronze.
-> So all the red circled players will compete separately for a bronze, and all the blue circled players will compete for another bronze.
-> The bronze competitors will fight in this manner: 2 and 3 will play a match; if 2 wins, he will play with 5. Whoever wins the match between 2 and 5, wins the bronze. Similarly, 15 and 13 will play a match; if 15 wins, he will play with 9. Whoever wins the match between 15 and 9 wins the second bronze.
It follows that the higher the round in which a wrestler loses to a finalist, the better it would be for him; if he loses in the semifinal, he only has to win one more bout to win bronze. Similarly, if you lose in the quarterfinals, you have to win two more bouts to win bronze, while for a Round of 16 loser the number of wins required is three.
The Repechage system has already helped Indian wrestlers win more than one medal, the latest being Sakshi. Will it come to the aid of our wrestlers again in Rio? Most Indian fans would be hoping that the Repechage system doesn't come into play any more though; it would be better, after all, if the wrestlers fight for silver or gold by making it to the final!