Rio Olympics: India lose, on the mat and off it

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Not a single tricolour to be spotted this gloomy morning in Rio, as the rain muddles pathways and the cold seeps right into the bone, even indoors. Not a single snatch of Hindi with that Haryanvi inflection to be heard from the mat — a familiar tongue that hits the high decibel when a medal’s round the corner, as it had in Beijing and London, making those distant lands seem for six minutes of a bout like home ground.

Not a final to look forward to in the early evening that can make you walk into the closing ceremony later looking both knackered from speed-typing a thousand words of gush, and also supremely satisfied as India moves up on the medals table. Sure, we were only 56th at London, but at least there was the Sushil Kumar silver and Yogeshwar Dutt bronze when signing off.

An Olympic wrestling competition hall buzzing with Russians, Americans, Japanese, the Iranians, Cubans and the Turks. And a quiet, listless, submissive exit from Dutt. Never mind the Narsingh Yadav-Sushil Kumar saga, where a federation’s stubbornness in not conducting trials professionally and later a severely botched up defense of a doping case, ended up shredding two reputations for life. And finally and starkly in comparison, there was no standing ovation today like London for a Dutt-special from Iranians and Americans after he’d wowed them with his signature move.

Sakshi Malik has started a new chapter in women’s wrestling and the girl has that tremendous presence about herself that points to a good 2020 Games, a confidence and drive like Mary Kom, the icon. But you know where boxing — women’s and men’s — wound up after those two pathbreaking medals from Mary and Vijender and all those punch-off stunts when corporates and sports management companies joined the bandwagon. Wrestling had a commercial league to take the sport to the masses. But men’s freestyle lost its classiness when it returned empty-handed in medals from Rio.

First the Dutt bout. The 33-year-old, coming off a series of injuries, surgeries, rehabs, taped knees, patched up ankles, was a Merc shell running on a scooter’s rickety engine. He had worked intensely hard for his second medal, but his fitness was visibly suspect, looking painfully slow against the grand sounding but mediocre player Ganzorigin Mandakhnaran. You could call it a tame fight, except that Yogeshwar didn’t look like he could take to its logical conclusion any daanv.

He’d won the Asian qualifiers for his quota. But this entire Olympics for Indians — save Sakshi — has felt like the desperate struggle to get that coveted invite to the prom: not dressed for the occasion but happy knowing there’s somewhere to go.

The wrestlers were hardly seen at any international exposure meets — the one place they went in Spain, was enough indication of the poor form (Sakshi medalled there, though). If photo-ops of climbing ropes and pumping weight in gyms is going to serve as fitness certificates for Indian wrestlers, then the country can continue to dawdle about in mediocrity. The glitzy league cannot be a substitute for bonafide international meets —like the badminton or tennis players do. For all his credentials, no one had seen Narsingh fight abroad in anything other than a league not run by his own federation.

While the selection and dope sagas were massive distractions to the run-up, none of the wrestlers had been tested for battle readiness and went down tamely in all categories. The trip to Bulgaria will forever remain contentious after Narsingh’s positive.

Narsingh Yadav’s 74 kg — a colossally poorly handled weight category — went unrepresented, and India managed the spectacular task of not a single bout being fought on the mat in 74 kg, after six months of legal jousting and an off-the-mat ugly, political faceoff.

After all is said and done — you would expect the wrestling federation to at least lay down plans for future selections and finally accept the practice of pre-Olympic trials: not only to sort out the quota conundrum in case of multiple contenders in same weight division but also to assess fitness heading into the Olympics and send screened athletes.

In a self-congratulatory mode for having stood by one wrestler and successfully kept another away, the wrestling federation however doesn’t look any closer to bringing in transparency in selection. They won’t mind continue erring, if they can run away from holding the trials.

London’s two medals was a fine legacy that was squandered away at Rio. It’s not like the federation looks like it has even a toehold of the situation for Tokyo.

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