If the legendary wrestler and coach Guru Hanuman were alive, he would have walked all the way to the airport to receive and felicitate Sushil Kumar Solanki on becoming the World champion in the freestyle 66 kg class. The gold that Sushil won at the World Championship in Moscow on Sunday was perhaps a fitting tribute to Guru Hanuman who, in 1925, set up an akhara in New Delhi to train wrestlers. Sushil Kumar’s coach, the Dronacharya award winner, Satpal Singh, was himself a product of the Guru Hanuman akhara and went on to win a gold medal at the 1982 Delhi Asian Games. In some ways, Sushil’s feat, including the bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is testimony of a rich wrestling heritage that India boasts of. Wrestling has references in the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and had always enjoyed royal patronage in ancient India. However, at the competitive level, Indians have achieved only rare success and wrestling as a sport never quite enjoyed a pan-Indian popularity despite Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav’s freestyle bronze medal (52 kg class) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. So much so that Jadhav died in penury. In this context, Sushil’s rise from a humble Jat family in Haryana to become a world champion is all the more creditable and worthy of the accolades and media exposure he has since received.
Sushil’s father, Diwan Singh, was a bus driver and could barely support his son’s wrestling interests. Given the poor facilities that the sport has in India, Sushil’s performance in Beijing was nothing short of outstanding and the one in Moscow even better. But those who have followed his career were hardly surprised. A gold medal at the 1998 Cadet Games and another at the Asian Junior championship in 2000, followed by medals at the senior level, including Asian and Commonwealth Games, all underlined his potential, but never quite received public and media attention, or for that matter, support.
It points to the sorry state of affairs in Indian wrestling that is still limited to a few pockets where it enjoys some following. Short of joining the WWE bandwagon, top Indian grapplers are unlikely to strike it rich. Sushil’s status as a world champion, hopefully, would inspire a new generation of wrestlers, but in reality, that would be expecting a tad too much in a country where sport is a past time and the preserve of the rich.