Bajrang Punia on Olympics, Handling Pressure and Facing Backlash
Bajrang talks about the pressure of winning a medal for India & the backlash athletes face when they don’t succeed.
“I believe what's in my destiny... no one can take that away from me. I just have to train hard and prepare (myself) to face my opponent,” says a smiling Bajrang Punia as he gets ready to start the final leg of his preparations for his Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games this summer.
Ranked number one in the 65-kg category, the 27-year-old is one of India’s gold medal favourites in Tokyo, but Bajrang’s preparations have hit a roadblock of late, with the nationwide lockdowns restricting his access to sparring partners with just months to go for the big event.
“There have been difficulties in India. There was going to be a training camp but that too got cancelled as we had to quarantine for 14 days, and athletes can’t afford to quarantine for such a stretch of time now,” he said, while speaking at an interaction with the media.
“We have been working only on our fitness over the last year and a half, as we can’t spar while at home. I tried calling four-five sparring partners, but because of COVID, it was not possible. That’s why, I have planned to train in Russia,” he added.
The Indian wrestling contingent has travelled to Poland to play a ranking event but Bajrang has chosen to go to Russia to get access to regular sparring partners and try to fill the gaps in his preparations, where he feels he is lacking.
One of the opponents Bajrang would be preparing specially for is Japan’s Takuto Otoguro, who beat him in the 2018 World Championships final and the Asian Championships in 2020.
The two were set to face-off in the gold medal match of April’s Asian Championships as well but Bajrang pulled out after an old elbow injury resurfaced during his semi-final bout. He, however, has since recovered from the niggle.
Otoguro is currently ranked fourth in the world and if the current rankings stay static till the Olympics, the duo would face each other only in the final.
“Those who follow wrestling know that in the 65-kg category, there are no favourites, no one person who will certainly win. Before the Asian Championships (in April) we competed in Italy. We have been able to compete in two tournaments since last year (2020). But it’s time to forget these things. There are two or two-and-a-half months left. During this time, we don’t want to leave any stone unturned and train the best we can,” Bajrang said.
While Tokyo will be Bajrang’s first Olympics outing, his many successes have also been a learning for the wrestler.
“Everyone wants to win a medal, but I don’t take a lot of pressure because I know no one will be as distraught as me if I don’t win a medal,” he said, when asked about the pressures of being India’s big medal hope.
“People turn up to ask questions when a medal is not won but one should ask an athlete about their pain, because since our childhood, we have prepared for that one big bout. It’s not right that if one doesn’t win a medal, then in our country, people start talking against them or criticise the sportsperson. No one notices that our opponents also train a lot. They don’t come to lose. Any athlete... all of them come to win. They all want to win,” added the 27-year-old.
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