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Sushil vs Narsingh: The King is wrestling a young challenger. Blame it on Rio

Wrestler Sushil Kumar, the greatest ever Indian athlete, may not, in fact, make it to the Olympics later this year. Indian Express explains how, and why.

sushil kumar, sushil kumar india, sushil kumar wrestler, rio olympics, rio 2016, rio 2016 olympics, olympics 2016, narsingh yadav, narsingh, sushil vs narsingh, olympics news, sports news, sports July 18 is the latest by which it must be decided which wrestler goes to Rio. (File Photo)

What is the current uncertainty over India’s wrestling squad for Rio 2016?

Having secured six quotas through various qualification meets in the last two seasons, India ought to be celebrating its entries in all possible categories — freestyle, Greco Roman and women’s. However, it finds itself in a situation where its most successful wrestler, Sushil Kumar, the only individual double Olympic medallist, is demanding a domestic selection trial so he can go to Rio for a shy at a third medal. Sushil has participated in only two international meets since London 2012, and has also been forced to move up a weight class from 66 kg to 74 kg, even as he has stayed away from the mat, recuperating from a shoulder injury. In the mean time, Narsingh Yadav, the original 74 kg champion from India, grabbed the chance to go to the World Championships at Las Vegas in September last year, where he won a bronze and earned the quota for India.

So what is the case for Narsingh Yadav to make it to the Olympics?

He’s hopeful that what happened in Vegas doesn’t merely stay in Vegas, and he can logically fight on his earned quota in Rio a year later. Though quotas belong to the participating nation and not to the wrestler, the 26-year-old can’t be blamed for seeking a chance to convert quota into medal. He’s younger, fit, and more seasoned in the 74 kg division than Sushil. Since the buzz about Sushil going to Rio on the quota he won began, he has been defiantly defending his claim. When he cites the simple precedent of the quota-winner being the one bound for the Games, he is also displaying the hunger to prove a point while standing up to a senior and more popular compatriot.

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And why should Sushil get a stab at another Olympic Games, and possibly his third medal?

Because it’s rare for an Indian athlete to win back-to-back Olympic medals, it’ll be unwise to deny him the chance to win a third. His experience is enough for him to demand a trial at the very least. He tested the waters in the 74 kg category at the Commonwealth Games against a very modest field, and won gold. His bag of manoeuvres is supposed to be brimming over, and having trained in akhadas where it is routine to take on heavier grapplers, it isn’t such a big deal for him to fight in a higher weight division. Sushil has proved he has the guile to overcome the best in the world.

But what is the normal procedure for selecting athletes for the Indian national squad?

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Olympic selections for wrestling have a controversial history, including an occasion in the mid-80s when a hockey international chaired the selection committee meeting. In Olympic cycles where there weren’t multiple challengers, the wrestler who won the quota went to the Olympics. However, there is recorded history of trials in 1984, 1992 and 1996. But again, no set procedure exists, and it is mostly the discretion of the dispensation of the day. Rules have been tweaked to accommodate wrestlers in the past.

So will we see a gladiatorial contest between the two strong men for the ticket to Rio?

No/Yes/Maybe/Brijbhushan Sharan Singh knows. Singh, president of the wrestling federation, has announced enigmatically that he has neither said there would be a trial nor has the federation denied there would be one. In the end, he might just decide to give both grapplers a chance to flex their muscles, holding a trial and giving fans a chance to savour a spectacle.

How do other countries select their athletes?

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Iran had a stunning day of selection trials on April 19, when freestyle contenders fought multiple bouts, just like at the Olympics, on a single day — and where many World Championship and Asian Games medallists were beaten by challengers — watched by close to 10,000 spectators. Until April, the USA had secured qualification (through medals at various meets including Worlds and continentals) in 9 of the 16 weight classes. An open “Last Chance” tournament was held for the remaining 7 weights, and an Olympic Team Trial happened at Ohio. Most Russians among the 17 headed to Rio finished among the top six in their respective weight classes at the 2015 World Championships, while three won quotas at the European Qualification Tournament. Two more added quotas at Qualification Tournaments in Turkey. Earn quota, go to Rio is how the Russians do it.

By the way, why does India have to choose one athlete over the other? Can’t both go?

No. One per country. Also, India usually struggles to qualify one per division! If two athletes are allowed per country, the Indians may be elbowed out even sooner than they are now.

Okay, so by when does the decision on going and staying back have to be taken?

July 18 is last date to confirm entries to the world body.

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And what is this talk about politics and arbitrariness in the selection process?

Sushil angered the federation bosses by not turning out in the pro league that was the federation’s showpiece. Wrestling has always been riddled with politics — both of the political-party and the akhada-intrigue varieties — and both wrestlers can be expected to pull strings. Various lobbies are at play, with Sushil’s coach and father in law, Mahabali Satpal, being a very influential figure in Indian wrestling. Narsingh, a Varanasi-born man, is thought to be closer to the establishment.

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Is this situation specific to wrestling, or do we have similar problems in other sports as well?

Shooting bumbled through this crisis an Olympic ago when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore was keen on staking claim to London despite no quota. It’s routine in shooting for marksmen to earn quotas and then give them to a potential candidate from another category, or to swap places within disciplines. However, India’s most successful individual discipline has devised a points system that takes into account consistency and form closer to the Olympics. This time, rifleman Sanjeev Rajput handed his quota (surplus in 3P-rifle) to Kynan Chenai who had won a trap quota, but lost out to Manavjit through the selection trial and points system.

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First published on: 12-05-2016 at 03:24 IST
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