Ravi Kumar Dahiya, an Unlikely Hero Emerges From Tokyo
Indian wrestler Ravi Kumar Dahiya will compete for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
If sports is indeed a religion, surprise would be its most evident angel. Despite the growing stature of Ravi Kumar Dahiya as the dark horse of Indian wrestling, not many could imagine a medal around the neck of this grappler from Nahari in Sonepat.
The statuesque wrestler was raised on the milk and fruit that were harvested by his parents on the fields back home in Haryana. His father, Rakesh, would visit the akhada every day, and would carry nutritious food to provide the much-needed energy to his precious child.
On Wednesday, Ravi turned precious to an entire nation. He extracted himself from the sticky jaws of defeat, using all the love, energy, and push he got from his parents, who worked equally hard to nurture him.
Persistence, belief and a never-say-die spirit were among the many lessons he learnt at the akhada, under the tutelage of his gurus. He put them all to the test in a gripping semi-final against a formidable Kazakh opponent with Mongolian heritage.
Of course, the mindless hours spent sculpting his body and toning his muscles come in handy too, as he grappled for honours in the men’s freestyle 57kg class.
At 2-9 with barely ninety seconds to spare on the sweat-inducing clock, Ravi was working with the back on his mat, literally. Nurislam Sanayev is seven years his senior and a World Championships medallist in both 2018 and 2019. But wrestling, particularly in the freestyle category, lends itself to significantly more drama than the Greco-Roman version. It allows for the use of the full body to express oneself.
The 23-year-old grappler from a humble family of subsistence farmers is shy and gentle off the mat. But put him in the grime of an akhada, and he tends to find a way to tame the lion, even when she has torn out some flesh and muscle from his chiselled body. Ravi wasn’t going to shy away from expressing his full repertoire of skills on the glistening mat of an Olympic arena.
Even as a precocious teenager, Ravi showed tremendous grit and determination. He overcame a dominant Zanabazar Zandanbud of Mongolia, winning by VP01, after being down 0-8 halfway through the semi-final contest in the 2015 Junior World Championships.
It has been characteristic of Ravi’s approach on the mat, groomed by Satpal Singh and Virender Singh, at the Chhatarsal Stadium in Delhi. The Sonipat wrestler presses his opponents to the last seconds on the clock.
It isn’t over so long as he can stand on the mat.
At the Makuhari Messe in the Chiba prefecture, the clock was winding down, as seemingly precious seconds rolled off the clock. It was like watching a notoriously leaky tap bleed water, leaving Indian wrestling fans clutching at straws with a desperate hope.
Not Ravi Kumar Dahiya. Not even after Sanayev had managed to lock his ankles into one of the most dreaded locks in freestyle wrestling. In a mad frenzy of rolling action, the 30-year-old made the most of it collecting eight points in a twenty second spell that threatened to wipe Ravi off the mat.
Strangely though, when the two men returned to lock shoulders, Sanayev must have been contemplating if stalling could be enough to exit the bout with a winning score. As it is, he was three points from gaining technical superiority, a ten-point lead, enough to end the contest.
Ravi though, wasn’t playing just to stall. He was investing the last ounce of his energy to break a formidable opponent. The 23-year-old Asian Champion had worked his way back from 2-9 to 5-9, moments after the Kazakh had produced the furious run of points.
It should have been enough to warn the Kazakh that the fight wasn’t won, just yet. With just over the minute left on the mat, Ravi landed his left knee to the floor, released the shoulder hold and managed to grab the legs of Sanayev. That was enough for Ravi to destabilise his opponent. In a flash, he threw the Kazakh to the floor. The Indian wasted no time in using his upper body to gain top position and press for the pin.
Sanayev resisted. But only in vain. After enduring the Indian’s strength and persistent force for a few seconds, it was all he could do to keep his shoulder off the mat. The match was called on a Fall in favour of the relentless Indian.
In reaching the final, Ravi emulates the most decorated wrestler in Indian sport. Sushil Kumar reached the final in London, earning a Silver medal in the process. Ravi will have an opportunity to go one better and fight for Gold on Thursday.
Zaur Uguev, his opponent in the final is a World Champion, twice over. The Russian won in 2018 and 2019, the second where Ravi collected his first big medal, a bronze and qualified for Tokyo 2020. Uguev defeated Ravi in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Championships, 6-4. It remains their only bout so far.
Even more than that, the magnitude of the Indian’s David like task in the finals is best described through the Goliath like legend of the 26-year-old from Dagestan. The reigning World Champion has accumulated twelve Gold medals in his last fifteen international outings, besides collecting a different shade of metal in the other three events. Uguev is also on a 16-match win streak, which means Ravi will have his hands full trying to upend his fancied rival off his sturdy feet.
Wrestling is an ancient sport, the oldest perhaps. It is a fine art, a refined expression of a guttural instinct for control and dominance. It is evocative of an animal spirit that lingers underneath the cultivated layers of every human being. On Thursday, Ravi will need to summon that beast and tame the one that Uguev is certain to unleash in his insatiable quest for some more Gold.
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