Sushil Kumar’s Journey From National Hero to a Murder Suspect
Sushil Kumar, the two-time Olympic medalist is currently in jail.
The Tokyo Olympics is less than two months away and as the build up towards the rescheduled Games kicks off, India’s only individual athlete to win back-to-back medals in the quadrennial competition should have been one of the most sought-after personality in the country.
Wrestler Sushil Kumar, who will turn 37 on Wednesday, has definitely been in the news for the last few days, and the way things are panning out, could be the talking point for a considerable period.
The two-time Olympic medallist isn’t making the headlines for his prowess on the mat as one would have expected but for his alleged show of strength that led to the death of a former junior national champion wrestler Sagar Dhankar.
Sushil has been named as a murder accused in the case.
The 2010 world champion was arrested on Sunday after being on the run for almost three weeks. While the accusation or the arrest isn’t an admission of guilt and Sushil Kumar has the opportunity to defend himself, what is more damning for the 37-year-old is that not many are surprised by the turn of events.
The Glory Years
Sushil Kumar’s journey can be divided into two halves with the 2012 London Olympic silver medal winning performance providing the tipping point. On August 12, 2012, the then 29-year-old had etched his name in the annals of Indian Olympic history by becoming the first player to win two individual medals at the Olympics.
It was the summit of journey that started when the son of a driver working with MTNL, Delhi, moved to the Chhatrasal stadium at the age of 14 to make a career in wrestling. He had surprised everyone by bagging the bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics through repechage round after Ukraine's Andriy Stadnik, who had defeated the Indian in the first round, reached the final and threw him a lifeline.
But the medal was no fluke, something Sushil proved in the next four years as he went on to win the 2010 World Championship crown in the 66kg category and then came close to bagging India’s second individual gold in London, only to be undone by a bout of vomiting and dehydration before the final against Japan’s Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu.
The loss in the final, notwithstanding, Sushil was the cynosure of all eyes back home. But little did one know that the fame and power that came with success and the world wrestling body’s decision to change weight categories for the next Olympic cycle would send his graph in public life tumbling down.
Soon after the 2012 Olympics, the world body decided the 66kg category won’t be part of the 2016 Games and Sushil opted to shift to 74 kg, giving up on the advantage that his speed and agility provided him in the lower weight category.
Sushil made all the right noises about being ready for the challenge and went on to win the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medal with ease as the level of competition was below par.
But that was the end of the fairy tale as he opted out of the subsequent Asian Games and World Championships as he knew he needed to prepare a lot better to be a challenger for the established stars.
Narsingh’s Entry and The End of Sushil’s Olympic Journey
He probably planned to take the continental qualifiers route to make it to Rio when he also decided to skip the 2015 World Championship. It so happened that Narsingh Yadav grabbed that opportunity to win a medal in Las Vegas and the country’s most decorated wrestler was now left to play catch up.
Things have only gone south for Sushil on the wrestling front since then. He had to move the Delhi High Court to get a trial against Narsingh Yadav but the plea was rejected.
Yadav soon afterwards failed the dope test and it should have given Sushil a chance to make it to his fourth Olympics. But the rift between him and the Wrestling Federation of India was soon in the open as the Mumbai wrestler alleged that his food was contaminated by some accomplice of the latter and even the federation put their weight behind Yadav. WFI also named Parveen Rana as Yadav’s replacement, ending Sushil’s hopes.
Two years later Sushil once again won the Commonwealth Games gold in Gold Coast but the first-round loss at the Asian Games a few months later was proof enough that he was a spent force on the mat, despite his argument to the contrary.
Sushil, a Powerful Man Off The Mat
The Chhatrasal Stadium was hub of activity with Sushil Kumar getting the rein of the place as Officer of Special Duty and was also elected the president of School Games Federation of India (SGFI) in 2016.
These positions gave him the political equity and the strongly built wrestlers who surrounded him wherever he went provided him the aura of invincibility in public life. In the Indian system, the more powerful you are the more anti-social elements tend to surround you and you begin to enjoy the benefits of those positions.
When Sushil was given three back-to-back walk-overs in the 2017 senior nationals, he defended the incident saying they did it out of respect for him. A few months later when Rana actually challenged him in the semi-finals of the selection trials for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he and his brother were then allegedly attacked by Sushil’s supporters. He, however, was quick to condemn the attack and the issue has gone cold now.
Stories of Sushil and his father-in-law Satpal Singh’s high handedness in running the SGFI have been doing the rounds for quite some time. The SGFI was even derecognised by the Union Sports Ministry for not following the provisions of the National Sports Code in their latest election but that hasn’t done anything to reduce their stranglehold on the organisation.
End of an Era?
Those close to Sushil have always claimed that the wrestler was as down to earth as he was while still finding his feet on the mat and most of the talk about pehlwanji’s aura and power inside the Chhatrasal stadium was just his followers using him name to gain control.
One will never know what the truth is as such incidents aren’t really unknown in Indian sports and political sphere. And hence Sushil always got the benefit of doubt.
But the current allegation of murder won’t be that easy to wipe off and by trying to run after the incident, Sushil did not do his case any good. According to newspaper reports, the wrestler had also got involved with some anti-social elements and had been helping one of them get control of the toll booths in and around Delhi.
Soon after Sushil was named as an accused in the Dhankar murder case, WFI was quick to blame him for tarnishing the image of the game. But those who know the world of wrestling inside out would tell you power struggles haven’t been new on and off the mat in the Indian wrestling system and hence the federation trying to pin the blame on the individual was probably unfounded.
However, Sushil has the upheaval task of rebuilding his own image.
The man who stood on the podium in Beijing and London and made every Indian sports fan skip a beat was the darling of the nation where as one wrapped a towel around his face after being arrested is a fallen hero who has his legacy tarnished.
There is no reason to brand him a villain or a victim of his own fame as yet and the law would take its own course and only time and thorough investigation would tell us what really happened on that dreadful day.
But on the eve of his 37th birthday, Sushil stands at an unenviable crossroad that could decide how he will be remembered from here on. And that even his biggest detractors would not have wanted.
(Abhijeet Kulkarni has been a journalist for over two decades and has been covering sports since 2003. He has also written a book on the rise of the sport since the turn of the century titled - The Gopichand Factor)
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