Wrestling in the 2010s: The decade that saw the rise of India, thanks to the Sushil Kumar phenomenon

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Sushil Kumar will be competing at his first World Championships in eight years | United World Wrestling

India saw their wrestlers win multiple medals at World Championships and Sushil Kumar won a silver at London Olympics.

By the time the Tokyo Olympics arrives next year, wrestling will be one of the most followed sport as far as Indian interest goes. Medals will be expected from the wrestlers and rightly so. In the last two Games, India have won three medals in the sport. Before the London Olympics, they had two in 56 years.

While many may remember the decade for the successful Bollywood movie Dangal, but it was actually a decade in which Indian wrestling actually wrote an even more successful script.

The past decade saw Indian wrestling grow and emerge as one of the leading Olympic sports in India. The foundation of this rise in the past decade was laid and led by Sushil Kumar.

If someone looks back in time to find the moment when Indian wrestling began its rise, Kumar’s gold medal at the 2010 World Championships and a silver medal at the London Games will always be counted as the high points.

Kumar, along with Yogeshwar Dutt who won bronze in London, gave Indian wrestlers the belief to win at the biggest sports spectacle in the world. Even the numbers show Indian wrestling’s upward trend in the past decade.

Since India’s first World Championships medal in 1961, they managed to win three more in the next 49 years. In the last 10 years, India have won 13 medals including five at this year’s World Championships.

While Kumar’s gold remains the only top medal, Bajrang Punia now has three medals (one silver, two bronze) from World Championships. Four women wrestlers have found themselves on the podium in the past 10 years.

But since Dutt’s retirement and Kumar’s unannounced breaks from the sports, Punia has been the torchbearer for Indian wrestling. The 65 kg wrestler won his third World Championships medal, a bronze, in Nur-Sultan this year.

His first came in 2013, when he won a bronze medal in Budapest. It took him five years to win his second – a silver – when he returned to the same city in 2018.

Senior-level medals in 2010s

Freestyle Women’s Greco-Roman
Olympics 2 (1S, 1B) 1 (B) 0
Commonwealth Games 19 (10G, 6S, 3B) 18 (6G, 7S, 5B) 7 (4G, 1S, 2B)
Asian Games 5 (2G, 3B) 4 (1G, 3B) 2 (B)
World Championships 8 (1G,1S,6B) 4 (B) 1 (B)

India also got their first Olympic medal in women’s wrestling as well. Sakshi Malik became the first woman wrestler to win a medal for India at Olympics when she clinched the bronze at the Rio Games in 2016. This was four years after Geeta Phogat became the first woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics in 2012.

While Geeta Phogat’s qualification gave new dreams to Indian female wrestlers, Malik’s medal made them believe that winning at the Olympics is possible. It broke stigmas in Indian society, especially in Haryana. Girls were allowed to take up wrestling and more girls made the country at various international tournaments.

Pooja Dhanda won the bronze medal at World Championships in 2018 and Vinesh Phogat won one in 2019, which earned her a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.

The 25-year-old has emerged as the new poster girl for Indian wrestling. After suffering a career-threatening knee injury at Rio Games, Vinesh Phogat recovered to win gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, a first for India in women’s wrestling.

She then qualified for the Olympics, becoming only the first woman wrestler from India to punch her ticket for the second time, having been to Rio too with her cousin sister Babita Phogat and Malik.

The progress of Indian wrestling is also evident at the age-group level. Deepak Punia became the first wrestler to win the junior world title in 18 years this year. After a host of Indian wrestlers had silver and bronze-medal finishes, Punia broke the jinx. In all, India won 22 medals at the Junior World Championships in the past 10 years.

Since the reinitiation of the Cadet World Championships in 2011, India have won 57 medals including seven gold out of which five were won by female wrestlers. The age group medals are proof that the next Olympic cycle may see more female wrestlers from India enjoy international success.

In Greco-Roman, India won their first-ever World Championships medal in 2013 when Sandeep Yadav claimed a bronze but since then, no senior-level wrestler has been able to win a medal. At the age-group, however, Sajan Bhanwal has been the pioneer in keeping the style in news.

After winning a bronze at the Junior World Championships, he won a silver next year in 2018, a feat that had never been achieved before. A couple of heartbreaking losses in the bronze-medal bouts at age-level World Championships have kept him away from medals.

Medals at age-level World Championships

Freestyle Women’s Greco-Roman
Junior 10 (1G, 4S, 5B) 8 (1S, 7B) 3 (1S, 2B)
Cadet 24 (3G, 6S, 15B) 26 (5G, 5S, 16B) 6 (3S, 3B)

But it’s not like all is good in Indian wrestling. It has had a fair share of controversies as well. Incidentally, the wrestler who is credited for the success of the sport is involved in those controversies. Kumar’s quest for his third Olympic medal saw him get involved in a legal battle against Narsingh Yadav who had won the quota place for India before the 2016 Olympics by winning a medal at the World Championships a year before.

But Kumar demanded a trial to chose the wrestler for Rio. However, WFI and later Delhi High Court denied Kumar the right. Yadav was later failed a dope test and no wrestler represented India at the 74 kg weight category in Rio.

A couple of years later, Kumar wrestled at the National Championships after a decade but three wrestlers did not wrestle him and only touched his feet. That caused another storm as to why Kumar has made himself bigger than the sport.

But to Kumar’s credit, the 36-year-old claimed a spot in the Indian team for the World Championships in 2019, eight years after the last time he did it.

While he continued to challenge the young guns, his longtime friend Dutt retired after Rio, split up from Chhatarsaal stadium in 2014 and began his own academy. This gave rise to a number of akhadas in the country.

The number of participants at National Championships increased and while Haryana continued to dominate the wrestling scene, other smaller centres also developed including Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh.

Given it’s a sport that requires strength and is split into different weight categories, the use of banned substances has also been an unfortunate byproduct. The 2010 Commonwealth Games saw six Indian wrestlers getting banned including Mausam Khatri who now is one of the top wrestlers in the country.

But with the Tokyo Olympics just seven months away, it is a great chance for India to build on what has been a ground-breaking 10 years in the past. If wrestling can fetch at least three medals in Tokyo, a new and improved phase will dawn upon the sport, taking its popularity to more households, a phenomenon one saw with badminton after the London Olympics.

And hopefully, India will get a new star. One who can be a world-beater and an Olympic gold medallist.

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