The legend may live on but Sushil Kumar’s legacy may not. The phantom of guilt will always pursue him to the end, whether convicted or not. The invisible, cruel hands of destiny have caught up with Sushil – a sporting icon who gave millions belief and reasons to dream – with a formidable grip, literally and metaphorically. His work on the wrestling mat was a living testimony of hard work, tenacity and a hint of mischief too in pursuit of glory. His story had all the ingredients of a shining and a rising India. A medallist at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, he has no equals in Indian sport.
That veneer of invincibility came crashing down on May 5, when an alleged murder in Sushil’s natural habitat — the Chhtrasal stadium — led the cops to starting a manhunt for the two-time medallist at the Summer Games. And, on Sunday morning, a video clip of two cops parading Sushil after apprehending him was poignant. That image will linger in the mind for eternity.
He had been absconding since May 5 after a brawl that resulted in the death of former national wrestling champion, Sagar Dhankar. Of course, beyond allegations and counter allegations, there is nothing as of now. The police are investigating, let it end. Until then, discussions surrounding it will be indulging in pure speculation. Yet, the allegations are damaging, like a missile hurtling towards a citadel of Indian sport. An off the field drama threatening to tarnish his unprecedented legacy.
On the mat, Sushil was no fluke. Time and again he rose to ascend the world of wrestling. When Indian wrestlers’ ambition was limited to dreaming about an Olympic medal, he shattered through that glass ceiling by winning one, a bronze, at Beijing in 2008. To remind the world that it was not by accident but design, he won his second at the London Olympics, a silver. He ruled the world championships with disdain. Merciless on the mat but he came across as one of the most docile down to earth characters off it.
Until 2012, he was a recluse. Then his career wasn’t as unfathomable as before. He moved to 74kg. He won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (2014) and then four years later in Gold Coast. During a conversation for more than an hour outside the Glasgow Games Village in 2014, he talked about silencing his critics and ruling the mat again. He also talked about how good he still was.
Sushil, a Hanuman bhakt, believes in tapasya. In 2010, after he returned from the world championships in Moscow with gold, he went to meet the sports minister, attended a couple of felicitation programme and went back to practice. In the evening he was at the Chattrasal Stadium, practicing. Leading a simple life of a hermit, he pursued excellence. “If you work hard for something sincerely, everything else will follow,” was his doctrine. A firm believer in karma and destiny, Sushil always felt there was no substitute for hard work and sincerity. He was modest. He was happy in his small cooler-cooled room in Sonepat (he got a single room after winning the Olympic medal) where the national camp used to be held. This was a time when endorsements were hard to come by even after the Olympic bronze. He rejoiced in gifts from his fans, ranging from an SUV after winning his first Olympic medal to a trivial Rs 501.
After 2012, things took a different turn. Weight categories at the Olympics were tweaked. He had to move from 66kg to 74kg. Since then, his medals including gold had been at the Commonwealth Games (Glasgow in 2014 and Gold Coast 2018) and a few commonwealth championships (2017 was the last). His career was punctuated by controversies too. Injuries were a constant company by then.
In 2016, the big controversy was the Narsingh Yadav-Sushil one. Narsingh had won an Olympic berth winning bronze at the world championships in 2015 but Sushil felt he should be called for trials to ascertain who should represent India at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like a soap opera or a low-grade crime thriller, the tussle turned into a mystery. Narsingh tested positive for doping and had to miss the Rio Olympics because he was forced to serve a four-year ban after a CAS hearing at Rio. Narsingh blamed Sushil for mixing a substance in his drink while he was not his room. The allegation remained an allegation as Sushil was cleared of all charges.
In 2016, he missed out on the Olympics. In 2018 he lost in the first round of the Asian Games. During the nationals in 2017, his larger than life image stared starkly across the sport. He won without a fight. Parveen and Sachin Rathi gave walkovers before the final. In the gold medal round too, Parveen Rana did not turn up citing injury. Later during a selection trials for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Parveen Rana lost to Sushil but was later attacked by ‘Sushil’s supporters’.
Months before lockdown last year, I went to meet Sushil in what he calls his ‘sacred space’: Chhattrasal Stadium. It was the basement parking where he had laid out two mats and built a new gymnasium. The dark, dimly-lit entrance led to his practice hall. He had a couple of guys in toe. There was an air of invincibility around him as he was preparing for the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics. It was visible. But he was a shadow of who he was in 2012. At 36, the strength was fading. His knees were strapped. An occasional grimace of pain was painted on his face. Life was no more that of Sushil in his glory days. He too knew but refused to acknowledge it. The parking lot below the sprawling Chhattrasal complex was an anti-thesis – dark and dingy. It’s where the ‘pehalwanji’ trained. He usually preferred to train alone. It is ironic that in and around the same place he was caught in this mess. His stint with the School Games Federation of India too was embroiled in untoward controversies.
However, the modest tone in his voice was still there. He still lived for the sport. The art is still living. The artist, however, will be painted with a different brush. Whether we should marvel at the art – the creation of the artist – or loathe the artist will depend on how we see the whole story.
“Life,” in the words of Albert Camus, an existentialist writer and Nobel laureate, “is a sum of your choices.”