When Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt recently spoke to the Olympic Channel, he was quick to point at India’s consistency in winning medals in wrestling over the past few editions of sports’ showpiece event.
“India has always been good at wrestling or else you won’t see us winning medals in the discipline with the degree of consistency that we have shown (of late),” Yogeshwar Dutt said.
However, while wrestling in India is steeped deep in the country’s culture whether it is dangal and akhara rings in villages or more sophisticated mats in cities, bagging Olympic medals in the discipline wasn’t always a foreseeable conclusion.
It’s this culture that helped India find its first individual Olympic medal winner after independence in wrestling through Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav – who won bronze at Helsinki 1952. But the second medal in the discipline came only 56 years later.
Leander Paes’ bronze at Atlanta 1996 had ended the nation’s individual Olympic medal drought, but their search for a second medal in wrestling at the Games continued.
All that changed at the 2008 Beijing Games when Sushil Kumar clinched bronze in the men’s freestyle 66 kg event. That was followed by three more medals in the next two Olympics.
While Sushil Kumar went on to become the first Indian to win two individual Olympic medals after clinching silver at London 2012, Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman wrestler to bag an Olympic medal at Rio 2016.
So, when the other Indian wrestler to win a medal during this period, Yogeshwar Dutt tells us that he is confident about India’s chances of winning another Olympic medal in wrestling at Tokyo, it is easy to understand why given recent history is on his side.
“We won Olympic medals in wrestling at the Beijing, London and Rio Games in wrestling and all our wrestlers that have qualified (for Tokyo) have done so through the World Wrestling Championship, which is a big deal and cannot be understated,” a bullish Yogeshwar Dutt asserted.
“Look, we have won many medals in wrestling in the past three editions of the Olympics. Our biggest hopes for medals at the Tokyo Games are Bajrang (Punia), Vinesh Phogat and Deepak Punia, who is new, young and has a lot of time to get better,” he said.
Another likely medal winner according to the 37-year-old is Deepak Punia, the youngest of India’s Tokyo-bound wrestlers who hails from the same wrestling school, the Chhatrasal Stadium, as Yogeshwar Dutt.
“It will be good if Deepak can win a medal but it’s important not to put too much pressure on the youngster since he still has a lot of time on his side to achieve great things. But Bajrang, Vinesh and Ravi Kumar are all capable of winning medals,” he insisted.
That said, he made it clear that three-time World Championships medallist and Asian Games, as well as Commonwealth Games champion, Bajrang Punia remains India’s best bet of another Olympic medal in wrestling.
“He has been doing well over the past year but must maintain his focus because if he can manage to stay switched on, then it will translate into a podium finish in a year’s time,” Yogeshwar Dutt said.
“He is capable of winning an Olympic medal and showed that he is a very good wrestler last year,” he added on Bajrang Punia, who finished last year as world no. 1 in his weight category.
Key to Bajrang Punia’s chances of a podium finish in Tokyo next year will be his focus and building his technique, according to Yogeshwar Dutt.
“I have always maintained and told him from the start that the more focused he remains on wrestling and if he works hard then his chances of performing well improve as do the odds of him winning something at the Olympics,” the 2012 bronze medal winner reckoned.
“He must also improve his leg defence because everyone is aware that it’s a weakness of his. So, he must work on strengthening that aspect of his wrestling,” Yogeshwar Dutt advised.
Among India’s women wrestlers, Yogeshwar Dutt feels that Vinesh Phogat, who bowed out in the quarter-finals of Rio 2016 hindered by a knee injury, is capable of sealing a podium finish going by her performances over the last few years.
“All our wrestlers from India like Ravi Kumar, Deepak Punia and Vinesh Phogat have done well in the last two-three years... and I pray for the same and hope that they can win the nation a medal,” he said.