Hope floats after wrestling controversy

- August 26, 2023

Young women wrestlers put up an unprecedented performance and pip powerhouse Japan to the second position at U-20 World Championships to bring some positive news to Indian wrestling

WINNERS: India’s women wrestlers with the U-20 World Championships trophy

In a topsy-turvy season that saw elite wrestlers, including Olympic medallists protesting on the streets of Delhi due to lack of good governance at Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) office, young female wrestlers winning the U-20 World Championships title has raised hope. 

Between August 14 to 20 at Amman in Jordan, India’s next generation of female wrestlers claimed as many as seven medals in 10 weight categories, including three gold medals to etch their names in the record books.

The Indian women’s team collected 140 points to push Asian giant and global powerhouse Japan to second place (129 points) and walk away with the overall women’s trophy for the first time in the history of Indian wrestling. The United States of America was third with 118 points.

Antim Panghal, a teenage wrestler from Hisar in Haryana was cynosure of all eyes in Jordan, as she won back-to-back gold medals in women’s 53kg. 

Antim defeated Mariia Yefremova of Ukraine 4-0 to successfully defend her 53kg title.

Savita (62kg gold), Priya Malik (76kg gold), Antim Kundu (65kg silver), Reena Sangwan (57kg bronze), Harshita Mor (72kg bronze), and Arju Luhach (68kg bronze) were other medal winners for India in Jordan.

Savita, winner of U-17 World Championships in 2023, added U-20 gold to her kitty in Amman.

According to Maha Singh Rao, Dronacharya Awardee in wrestling, who accompanied the team to Jordan, the enthusiastic youngsters wanted to prove themselves at the global level. 

“Antim wanted to prove a point in Jordan that she was no less than others in her weight because she was snubbed during the Asian Games national selection trials,” Rao said.

The ad-hoc panel constituted by the Indian Olympic Association of India (IOA), which looks after day-to-day affairs of wrestling, gave direct entry to two-time Olympian and world medallist Vinesh Phogat for the Hangzhou Asian Games.

GUIDING HAND: The U-20 World Championships winning team with coach Maha Singh Rao

The decision of the ad hoc panel didn’t go down well with Antim, who was a strong contender for the Asian Games berth. Antim dominated the trials but still remained a standby.

It was a different matter that Vinesh injured her knee during a practice session and expressed her inability to compete at the Asian Games in China. The ad hoc panel has invited Antim, winner of the 53kg bout during national selection trials held in Delhi, for the Asian Games now.

Antim pointed out that she (Vinesh) has no achievement in the last one year but is still being given privilege to compete at the Asian Games without a selection trials. 

“We have been training hard for the Asian Games. There should be fair trials,” Antim had said.

That burning desire to prove her detractors wrong must have given her extra energy to give her best to win back-to-back U-20 World titles.

Antim also alleged that preference was given to Vinesh during the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games selection trials. 

“There was cheating and I lost,” she claimed.

She heaved a sigh of relief after making it to the Asian Games squad.

Priya Malik’s father Jai Bhagwan attributes superlative performance of her daughter at U-20 Worlds to individual efforts.  

“We have been working hard, extremely hard, to polish skills to excel at the international level,” Jai Bhagwan explained.

Priya practices at a wrestling training centre in Nidani. 

“There are good sparring partners and facilities in Nidani,” he added. 

“Since Priya was training at home, a better diet was another reason for good performance in Amman.”

Virender Kumar Dahiya, a Delhi-based wrestling coach, said that the national women’s wrestling team could have done better. 

“The young wrestlers could have certainly added one or two more gold medals to their kitty. But due to lack of a proper system — wrestling is being run on an ad hoc basis and without proper coaching camps – we missed out,” said the national level wrestling coach.

The ad hoc panel has drawn flak for not conducting domestic competitions. The national team has been selected on the basis of trials. The WFI elections of the new office-bearers scheduled for August 12 were postponed due to legal dispute.

There should have been proper national camps after the national competitions, Dahiya said.

“Court cases have further damaged the growth of domestic competition,” the national level coach added.

The 2023 season will also witness Asian Games in China (from September 23) and Senior World Championships in Serbia (from September 16).

The next round of national selection trials for the senior World Championships will be held in Patiala from August 25.

The Senior World Championships starting September 16 to 24 in Belgrade, Serbia, will be the first Paris Olympic qualification event.  The wrestling competition at the Asian Games will start from October 3 in Hangzhou, China.

Trimming weight

Almost all the medal winners of the U-20 Worlds are likely to compete in the senior group at the upcoming national selection trials for the World Championships, from August 25 in Patiala.

Due to packed international schedule as well as domestic trials, wrestlers often resort to weight trimming. 

So is the case with top wrestlers.

When wrestlers compete in trials, they get a grace of two kg. However, in sanctioned tournaments, they have to weigh exactly according to the weight category.

Having returned from U-20 Worlds, these young wrestlers will now compete in the trials and then if they qualify for the Worlds, compete there in September and then at Asian Games in early October. 

This will mean they will be forced to reduce their weight.

Trimming of weight so frequently is not a healthy sign for the wrestlers, added Dahiya.

“Wrestlers are prone to injuries if they frequently cut down weight to compete at international level in the respective weight class and then compete at the domestic level,” Dahiya added.   

Jaivir Singh, coach of Mohit Kumar, the U-20 world champion in men’s 61kg freestyle event in Jordan, was of similar opinion.

“Kumar will continue to compete in 61kg in the upcoming national selection trials for the World Championships,” Singh said before adding that cutting down weight more than twice also impacts performance in the long run.

Jaideep (74kg bronze), Sagar Jaglan (79kg silver), Deepak (97kg bronze) and Rajat Ruhil (125kg bronze) were other medal winners in the men’s group in Jordan.

Singh, who has set up a wrestling academy in Bupania village near Jhajjar, about 35 km from Delhi, was elated that his trainee (Kumar) has added U-20 World Championships gold to the kitty. 

ACHIEVEMENT: Mohit Kumar, won gold in the 61 kg freestyle category in Amman

“Kumar won bronze in the last edition,” said Singh, a former national level freestyle wrestler.

Singh is promoting wrestling in the region with the support of the panchayat. 

“There are more than 100 wrestlers at the residential academy in the village. We have an indoor hall with six wrestling mats,” Singh added. “Last year, wrestlers from this academy won as many as five international junior medals. This year too they won five medals.”

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games medallist Bajrang Punia will skip the upcoming selection trials for the Worlds to focus on the Asian Games. The ad hoc panel also gave Punia a direct entry in the men’s 65kg freestyle event to the Asian Games. Punia along with Vinesh and Sakshi Malik, Rio Olympic Games bronze medallist, was the face of protest by wrestlers in Delhi.

Antim and Priya, the newly crowned U-20 world champions, will be among several elite wrestlers who will be in action this weekend in Patiala to earn a berth for the Belgrade World Championships.