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The Freestyle Freefall: Why India’s Male Wrestlers Are Struggling to Qualify for the Paris Olympics |  Sports-others News

The Freestyle Freefall: Why India’s Male Wrestlers Are Struggling to Qualify for the Paris Olympics | Sports-others News

There has been a premonition about the freefall of freestyle for some time now.

Since independence, it is a style of wrestling that has earned India the most medals at the Olympic Games after hockey. At least one male wrestler has finished on the podium in three of the last four Games, despite all the administrative lapses and governance errors.

That record is now in jeopardy.

India is staring at the possibility of having zero representation at the Paris Games event, which starts on July 26. The World Olympic qualifiers, which start in Istanbul on Thursday, are the wrestlers’ last chance to avoid embarrassment.

India could still win one or more quota places this weekend, saving themselves the embarrassment of not being represented in the men’s freestyle.

But that will only happen after they have overcome many hurdles – from having their best-laid plans undone due to frequent changes of mind by the federation to training themselves because the governing body has not yet achieved legitimacy at home and is not in it successfully organize training camps and are starved of national and international competition.

Festive offer

Nothing illustrates the sad state of affairs better than the fate of Deepak Punia and Sujit Kalkal.

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The duo could not reach the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Bishkek as they were stranded at Dubai airport two days before the start of the tournament and did not want to leave anything to chance for the world event in Istanbul. They had decided to travel directly from Bishkek to Dagestan and from there to Istanbul.

Virender Dalal, who coached him in his formative years, explained Punia’s logic for training in Dagestan: “There he could continue training with some of the world’s best competitors. It would give him the opportunity to share the mat with wrestlers from different countries, stay in the same time zone and avoid unnecessarily long journeys.”

Kalkal, the Asian under-23 champion who is eyeing his first Olympics, is said to be heading to Punia for the same reasons. After all, the Russian hub was their base even before the Asian qualifiers.

But a hesitant federation threw a spanner in the works at the last minute. “When they were planning to leave, the federation asked them to travel to India as they were considering holding new selection trials for the world qualifiers,” Dalal said. It was said that their attendance at trials was mandatory and no exemptions would be granted. Reluctantly, Punia and Kalkal abandoned their Dagestan plans and traveled to New Delhi.

To their shock, WFI announced a few days after their return that no selection tests would take place. “I met Deepak last Saturday and he was very disillusioned. Not only because he missed the Asian qualifiers through no fault of his own, but also because he could not travel to Russia,” says Dalal.

Own goals

Furthermore, even in the last chance saloon, wrestlers have to make do with a coaching staff that reportedly sticks to archaic methods.

It is possible that when the Indian wrestlers take to the mat on the weekend, they will be given one or more quota spots. But huffing and puffing just to get a spot shows how Indian men’s wrestling is stuck to the mat.

When they take to the mat this weekend, Punia and Kalkal will hope to put aside natural and man-made setbacks to their qualification hopes.

They aren’t the only ones who have faced challenges in the run-up to qualification.

The turmoil in Indian wrestling since the start of protests against former president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment, has taken a toll on the sport.

“One of the most important things that are missing are tournaments and camps,” says Kripashakar Bishnoi, an Arjuna award-winning wrestler turned coach. “At national camps, which were always long, the four best wrestlers in the country in each category trained together every day. They pushed each other for a spot on the team and the level of competition was healthy. Now that is missing.”

The Delhi HC was hearing an application filed in a pending petition filed by wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik for declaring the December 2023 elections as illegal and setting them aside by the Wrestling Federation.  (Express photo by Amit Mehra) The turmoil in Indian wrestling since the start of protests against former president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment, has taken a toll on the sport. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

Due to the abnormal situation regarding the WFI – which is recognized by the international organization, but not by the Ministry of Sports, which imposes sanctions on domestic camps – it has not been possible to gather all the wrestlers under one roof. Each of them trains independently, at an academy or abroad.

“Training in an akhada is not the same as a camp. You are not always exposed to the best wrestlers and the intensity of the sparring can be lacking. You see that when they compete,” says Bishnoi.

Not a direct target

Then again, there wasn’t much to compete for. Dalal, who runs an academy in Haryana where both young Bajrang Punia and Deepak Punia lived, says the number of matches has been drastically reduced since the protests began.

“There used to be national championships for all age groups, Federation Cup and ranking tournaments. They all took a hit last year,” says Dalal.

India’s participation in international competitions also suffered. For example, India was missing from the entry lists of the Dan Kolov and Yasar Dogu tournaments, where they traditionally compete at the start of the season. They could not do so because the dates for the selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers conflicted with these events and participation in the former events was mandatory.

A cursory glance at the world body’s statistics from 2022, the year before the protests, 2023, the year of the protests, and the first five months of this year tells a story.

Taste this:

In 2022, Deepak Punia (86 kg category) competed in 20 fights according to UWW records. That dropped to fourteen in 2023 and he has only fought four so far this year.

Aman Sehrawat, who weighs 57kg, wrestled in 28 matches in 2022, 20 in 2023 and only 7 so far this year.

Kalkal, UWW data shows, played sixteen matches in age categories in 2022. He didn’t compete in a single bout last year and so far the 21-year-old has only fought one fight in 2024, which he lost.

“The lack of matches is a problem. Unless you fight, you don’t know what level you are at,” says Dalal. “That is why Deepak chose to train abroad. At least he trains with some of the best in the world.”

And due to the federation’s indecisiveness, Punia couldn’t even do that ahead of a make-or-break tournament for India’s male wrestlers.