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Ticket to Tokyo

Indian wrestlers (freestyle) start World Championships campaign today as they aim to secure an early qualification for 2020 Olympics

Sep 17, 2019, 07.55 AM IST
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by Garima Verma

The great Games have an unequivocal tendency to capture the narrative. In another year, the World Championships would have been all sufficient to confirm and celebrate the finest. But in the run-up to the Olympics they are but a stepping stone to the bigger glory — the chance that tempts even a few forgotten ones to get up and fight the fight.

And, when it is the first pit stop of Tokyo 2020 wagon, the eagerness to hitch a ride and gain an early ticket beats any other incentive. It is expected then that it tempts the likes of double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar to return to the mats of the World Wrestling Championships; long after he won the gold in the 2010 edition. Similar would be the aspiration of Vinesh Phogat when the Greco-Roman competition gives way to women grapplers in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday. The championship offers six Olympic quotas in six categories in all three styles.

The world No. 6, having shut herself off from the worldly distractions for some time, could be looking at writing her own chapter in the history. A podium finish not only gives the 25-yearold the coveted Tokyo ticket but also enters her name in the list where no other Indian woman wrestler has been, not even her illustrious cousins Geeta and Babita Phogat — a World Championships medal.

Vinesh was enjoying domination in her regular 50kg category till last year. A switch to 53kg, following the change in rule that now schedules weigh-in on the day of the competition and not a day before, meant stronger opposition. The results might have taken some time but the consecutive gold medals at Poland Open, Grand Prix of Spain and Yasar Dogu International gives her ample confidence to make up for the 2018 absence due toalastminute injury.

In the following days, even Bajrang Punia would also be aiming to fix the gaps that let the gold slip away in the previous edition. His run-up to the ongoing championships has been even more spectacular than Vinesh. The 25-yearold would be the man to beat when he starts his campaign on Thursday as world number one. Bajrang has a couple of world medals to his credit but Sushil is the only one to have been crowned champion.

“The aim is of course to win the gold and qualify for the Olympics in the first tournament,” Bajrang admits as much, but refuses to read much into the ranking. “Be it a world number one or anyone else, if you want to become the champion and go all the way to the finals, every challenge has to be taken seriously. The only difference for me could be that being the top seed I might get one bye depending on the number of entries. But that is it.”

Being in the form of his life, and, hence, clearly among the Olympic medal favourites, Bajrang is making sure that the chinks in the armour are addressed well in time; leg defence being one. “I am working on every mistake that I make and every weak point I have,” he tells ET Sport. “Not only leg defence but we have been training hard to up both attack and defence, as 65kg is one category in the world in which anyone (there are at least 12 to 15 such wrestlers) can beat anyone. Every fight is like a final for me in such a scenario.”

For Sakshi Malik, though, it would actually be. The destiny hasn’t been nice to her since 2017 Commonwealth Championships. The lone female Indian grappler with an Olympic medal — bronze at 2016 Rio games, has been known to give in to lure of defensive play and lose from advantageous positions. Yet, the pull of becoming the second only athlete, after Sushil, to earn two Olympic podium finishes, has her determined in Nur-Sultan.

“The aim is to qualify and then focus on the Olympic preparations,” she tells us. “That would then give me almost a year to work on my game for Tokyo. The last two years haven’t been good; have lost crucial matches in the final two or three seconds. I need to work on those mistakes; I have in fact been training such so that those final seconds don’t cost me in the future.”

And, as Sushil says, “big stages do matter. It is but natural that any player would want to make his presence felt at the Olympics, World Championships, and other such big tournaments.” He starts his efforts for the same on Friday in 74kg, with - first-ever dedicated platform for wrestling, launched with the start of the Senior World Wrestling Championships on September 14 — bringing all the action to the Indian fans.


MEN’S FREESTYLE Ravi Kumar (57kg), Rahul Aware (61kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Karan (70kg), Sushil Kumar (74kg), Jitender (79kg), Deepak Punia (86kg), Parveen (92kg), Mausam Khatri (97kg) and Sumit Malik (125kg).

WOMEN’S Seema (50kg), Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Lalita (55kg), Sarita (57-kg), Pooja Dhanda (59-kg), Sakshi Malik (62kg), Navjot Kaur (65kg), Divya Kakran (68kg), Komal Bhagwan Gole (72kg) and Kiran (76kg).
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of
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