Despite the standoff between Narsingh Yadav and two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar over holding national selection trails for the 74kg weight class ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016, it seems the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will once again sacrifice logic at the altar of parampara (tradition) for the Tokyo Olympics.
Office-bearers of the WFI have unequivocally said that the federation will persevere with the tradition of sending the grappler who earns India an Olympic quota to Tokyo 2020, irrespective of form or credentials of other Indian wrestlers in the same weight class. The controversial quota policy of the federation had faced considerable flak before the Rio Olympics because it had led to two-time Olympic champion Kumar, who had been the face of the sport in India, to be omitted from the Rio-bound wrestling squad in favour of Yadav, who had earned India a spot in the 74kg event by winning bronze at the 2015 Las Vegas World Championship.
Sushil, having had his demand for trials turned down by the WFI, had even knocked on the doors of the Delhi High Court. However, the court had ruled in favour of the federation at the time.
The controversy seems to have done little to shake the federation’s faith in their traditions.
“We will still stick to the policy of sending quota winners to the Olympics rather than hosting trials,” WFI Assistant Secretary Vinod Tomar said on the sidelines of an event to announce Tata Motors’ association with WFI as their principal sponsors.
The first event of the Tokyo Olympics cycle offering quota places will be the World Championships in Budapest in October this year.
Should an Indian athlete win a quota spot at Budapest, the grappler will be considered India’s official entry into the weight class for the Tokyo Games happening 19 months later.
Asked what would happen should a quota-winning wrestler lose their form in those 19 months, Tomar offered only a simple “Such a thing hasn’t happened so far.”
Tomar said that a trial would only be considered by the WFI should a quota-winning wrestler pick up an injury which would rule them out from the showpiece event in Tokyo.
Tomar added that the federation would decide a pecking order of sorts for each weight class after the trials for the World Championships. Should the winners of these trials fail to win a quota at the Worlds at Budapest, the runner-up will be sent to the next event offering a Tokyo 2020 spot.
It remains to be seen what the federation will do should a promising or an established world-class wrestler be injured at the time of the all-important trials before the World Championships.
It must be noted that the some of the top wrestling countries in the world like USA and Iran hold trials to decide their wrestling teams for the Olympics.
India’s tradition of sending quota winners to the Olympics without trials had also led Kripa Shankar Patel to drag the federation to court over sending Yogeshwar Dutt to the Athens Olympics. Just like in 2016, the Delhi HC had ruled in the federation’s favour. But the concept of trials for Olympics berth is not completely unheard of in Indian wrestling — Kaka Pawar had faced Pappu Yadav in the 48kg Greco-Roman event with a spot on the Atlanta Olympics-bound squad on the line.
For the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia, the WFI had picked Bajrang Punia (men’s 65kg weight class), Kumar (men’s 74kg), Vinesh Phogat (women’s 52 kg) and Sakshi Malik (women’s 62kg) without holding trials in their weight categories citing that they are the best in India in their respective categories. However, on Wednesday, The Hindustan Times reported that the WFI was concerned by Kumar’s form after he lost to Polish wrestler, Andrzej Piotr Sokalski, at the Tbilisi Grand Prix earlier in July. The WFI’s concerns regarding Kumar’s form came a month after they had backed him to the extent of giving him a spot in the Asian Games-bound team without holding trials.
But the federation officials seem certain that quota winners at the Budapest Worlds will continue their form till Tokyo 2020.
Incredulously, Tomar’s rationale for not holding trials in four weight classes ahead of the Asian Games was the ‘stress that the athletes would have to undergo while competing in trails’.
“In categories where we know there is never a consistent winner, we need to have trials. But when WFI and coaches know that in one weight class a certain wrestler is going to win, then why should we unnecessarily hold trials? Winning medals at big events may be easy for them but trials can be stressful and can cause nervousness in a wrestler.”
Tomar dismissed the notion that the WFI had given certain grapplers like Kumar an unfair advantage by not holding trials for their weight category for the Asian Games.
“We haven’t given Sushil any benefit. We’re looking at only our benefit, we want medals. It’s not like we didn’t see other wrestlers in Sushil’s weight class. We gave Parveen Rana and Jitender Singh a chance at the Asian Championships but their performances were below-par. For the Asian Games, you’ll need the strongest player available so that’s how we came up with that decision.”
Tomar said the federation was expecting as many as nine medals at the Asian Games, four to five of them golds. While he predicted that all four exempted grapplers would come back with a medal, Tomar also said that Greco-Roman wrestlers were good enough to bring home two or three medals.