Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya
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He’s brought glory to the country multiple times since he started wrestling, is India's only two-time individual medalist at the Olympics, and was also the first to bag a gold at the World Wrestling Championships. And while he continues to be successful on the mat, the one thing that doesn’t seem to leave Sushil Kumar, is controversy.
No surprise then, that when I mentioned the word ‘controversy’ while interviewing him at Delhi’s Chhatrasal stadium – ahead of his sixth World Championships – the veteran wrestler from Haryana, had a good laugh. He just doesn’t know what to say anymore, he tells me.
At the Commonwealth Games trials in 2018, Sushil’s supporters had got into a brawl with his opponent Parveen Rana, who claimed that he and his brother had been beaten up for fighting the bout against the senior wrestler.
This time around, things were a little different. At the trials for the World Championships, starting 14 September in Kazakhstan, Jitender accused Sushil of using unfair practices during their 74 kg selection bout.
Jitender, who was injured in the eye and elbow during the bout, had said, “Everyone saw how he (Sushil) fought. I was just doing wrestling and he was... I had trouble seeing after that eye injury. I had prepared well. He was also taking unnecessary breaks”.
When asked his response to the allegations, Sushil Kumar said, “What should I say about that?”
“I’m always saying something or the other. But it was a good, healthy trial and everyone enjoyed a lot.”Sushil Kumar
Jitender’s coach Jaiveer had said,“He did it on purpose. He has been doing it for years. He employed same tactics in the 2012 Olympics. It was definitely deliberate. The referees were also hand in glove. They don’t want any other to win against Sushil.”
But the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh backed Sushil, and his 4-2 win in the bout confirmed that the 36-year-old would be returning to the world championships after 8 years.
“I won't know my chances of winning a medal at the world championships until I'm on the mat. I can’t sit here and tell you. No athlete will be able to tell you that. Only when you go there you know how you’re playing,” said Sushil, who will be eyeing an Olympic berth at the highly-competitive world championships.
Mary Kom Says No Trials, Sushil Disagrees
Amid another row, Indian boxer Mary Kom had recently called for doing away with selection trials after a boxer in her category had alleged that she didn’t get a fair chance at sealing a berth for the world boxing championships.
Asserting that she did no wrong by asking for an exemption, Mary had said "Maybe, the BFI can change the programme altogether, no trial for boxers who are performing well, they can directly get the quota for any championship or tournament. “You look at other games like badminton, who gives trials? Did Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu give any trial?" Mary had said.
But Sushil Kumar – who had appealed to the high court for a ‘fair trial’ ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics – disagreed.
“Mary is a great athlete in her own right and she has made the country proud on several occasions. But I don’t want to interfere in the federation’s systems. No one can run away from the rules that have been made,” said Sushil.
‘Would Never Give Walkovers’
Back in 2017, Sushil was involved in another controversy after the veteran wrestler had ‘walked over’ to a gold in the National Wrestling Championship, with his opponents in the quarters, semis and finals, refusing to fight their respective bouts out of respect for their senior.
Sushil however, said he against this apparent ‘tradition’ in the sport, and never gave in to it.
“How am I responsible for those who don’t fight bouts? My responsibility is that I prepare well, train well, reach the mat and try to beat my opponent. I would never give a walkover. I would never do it.”Sushil Kumar
He went on to say, “I’ve had bouts against my seniors. I kept touching his feet but I fought the bout. I’ve had many bouts against Ramesh. He was my senior. He even defeated me several times. And several times, he got injured and the bout had to be abandoned midway. This type of respect is part of the system”.
“Both you and the opponent are working hard. So that should be appreciated, and the bouts should be fought.”
Final Shot at More Olympic Glory?
A legend in the 66kg category, Sushil hasn’t enjoyed much success in the 74kg bracket. After a shocking first round exit at the 2018 Asian Games, Sushil returned to the mat after a year and lost in the quarters of the Medved Tournament in August.
“I have some good years and some others are otherwise. I’m used to this.”
On his preparation for the upcoming championships, he said, “Now I have more experience. I’ve been training well and I believe that it will be good. I had requested (the federation) for a personal coach. The authorities had then appointed Malikov Kamal. He doesn’t usually go anywhere. There’s a lot of respect for Kamal in Russia and across the world. Now I’ve trained well, so just hope to do well”.
Having won a bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games and a silver at the London Games, the next edition of the quadrennial tournament in Tokyo could be 36-year-old Sushil’s final chance at bringing more Olympic glory to the country.