Meeting India’s Most Successful Olympic Wrestler Sushil Kumar
As a sports journalist I have been fortunate to see Sushil Kumar win the bronze medal in Beijing and the silver medal in London. I got to see the athlete whom I’d often see sweating it out in Chhatrasal stadium on the Olympic podium. The same hands that used to carry drink jugs to rehydrate after practice, I saw them carry the tricolour high.
The Sushil Kumar who had trouble finding a taxi to get to the Games Village a day after winning the bronze in Beijing because of language, I see him filled with an amazing confidence today. A few days back I sent him a message on Whatsapp, “Sushil Bhai aap se baatcheet karni hai” (Sushil Bhai, I need to talk to you). He replied, “Jaldi milte hain” (let’s meet soon).
For our meeting, we finalised on the same place where Sushil started from – Chhatrasal Stadium, Delhi. Sushil recently won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Now he comes to the stadium in a big car. Apart from this, there has been no change in his attitude or his manner.
As soon as he enters the stadium, Sushil signals a boy who turns up with bel sherbet. This is standard procedure with him. We begin talking after the sherbet is served. It was Sushil Kumar’s birthday – the reason we met.
Sushil, do you still remember your first day at Chhatrasal Stadium? He responds, “what are you saying bhai sahab, I remember everything. I haven’t forgotten anything. You know when I had come here in the beginning, a coach had said that this boy cannot wrestle. He told my brother that he is a good wrestler, but to me he said wrestling is not for you. It hurt me. My father was a driver for MTNL. Hardships were aplenty. To add to it, when the coach said this I was disappointed. But I decided that I would not leave Chhatrasal Stadium. Eventually my hard work and training paid off. One day Satpal guru ji patted my back and said – this boy will become a world champion. Until then, I had been dejected thinking that maybe the first coach was right about me not being able to become a wrestler, then Satpal guru’s words filled me with happiness.”
“After that there was no stopping me. There was a bus number 978. I used to try to get the seat right at the back. Dozing on that seat, with the wind blowing in my face on the way to the stadium, became routine. Today, I have an office in the same stadium.”
If any complaint against Sushil came in from somewhere, he would be punished right in front of the person who complained, so that it would be clear that justice had been served immediately, before witnesses.
When Sushil started going to Chhatrasal Stadium, his mother would miss him a lot. But no matter how much she missed him, she wasn’t allowed to show it. Whatever tears she shed were in secret, to not weaken the boys. The result of this strict upbringing was that the son grew up with a solid constitution. The circumstances that came into play strengthened their belief that whatever the almighty does is for the best. How did this happen? Sushil says:
In 2002, the Commonwealth Games happened in Manchester. Six days before the competition my name was taken off from the tournament. I thought that I would help ease my family’s financial difficulties a bit if I won a medal there. I was very disappointed. The same day I met a senior wrestler whom I respect very much, he said, who knows, maybe the almighty has something better planned for you. What he said that day will stay with me forever.Sushil Kumar
At the World Championships the next year Sushil failed to win a medal. But his training and hard work began to get noticed. In 2004 he was selected for the Athens Olympics. He went to Athens but returned disappointed. For the first time he understood the magnitude of the Olympics. Upon returning, he began to work harder.
Satpal guru’s words rang in his ears – win an Olympic medal….win an Olympic medal. But irrespective of how much the words might echo, there was no option but to wait four years before being able to turn them into reality. So Sushil Kumar waited. Then came Beijing. In Beijing as well he lost the first round. Media houses across the country flashed the news, Sushil Kumar was out. Then it turned out that he was back in the game, thanks to ‘repechage’.
There is no harm in accepting that at that time very few sports journalists understood the rules of ‘repechage’. Sushil Kumar reminisces:
When I lost, guruji was really upset. He was so upset that it is hard to put it into words. When the ‘repechage’ news came out, I decided that I will give it everything I had. I defeated the wrestler from USA, then the wrestler from Belarus. The Kazakhstani wrestler I defeated at a great moment. Finally I got an Olympic medal, what guruji had been asking for I had achieved.Sushil Kumar
After that, the entire world knows that Sushil Kumar’s life changed. He has medals, awards, fame, stardom and endorsements. It is important to mention here that even then Sushil Kumar turned down a dummy ad for a liquor brand saying that it was not a message he wanted to send to the youth.
In 2012 Olympics, Sushil once again performed amazingly. This time he went a step further and won the silver medal. But the truth is, on that day Sushil missed the gold after a close bout. Even today he thinks about that bout sometimes, thinking he missed the gold.
What is the most satisfying today Sushil?
It is almost 6 in the evening. Chhatrasal Stadium is filling up with kids who come to play different sports. It is warm-up time for them. The boys and girls are running. Every time they come close to us, they wish Sushil who responds with ‘best of luck’. Some kids keep coming back to wish Sushil. He laughs “they are kids bhai sahab, they are having fun”.
The kids have got an Olympic champion in their midst. Before I leave, I take out my camera, “Come Sushil bhai, let’s take a selfie – Sushil says you come bhai sahab, I’ll click.” After the selfie, as I prepare to leave he asks me his same old question – “bhai sahab, will you have some more sherbet?”
(Shivendra Kumar Singh is freelance sports journalist. He has covered two Olympic Games, 3 cricket World Cups, Asian Games and many sports events across the world.)