The relationship between Indian wrestlers and the Olympics goes a long way back as the sport earned independent India its first individual medal at the Summer Games in 1952.
As India attempts to win its first gold medal in the sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Bajrang Punia will be the wrestling contingent’s headline act in its bid for Olympic glory.
First steps into wrestling
Bajrang Punia was raised in the Kundan village of Jhajjar district in Haryana, and like many distinguished athletes, his story began with humble surroundings.
Wrestling captivated Bajrang at a young age, and he would escape classes to watch matches in the local ‘akhara’ (wrestling area). With a live-action experience of the free-hand sport and the value-added advantage of his father Balvan Singh being a wrestler himself, Bajrang Punia actively took up wrestling as his primary sport in the early 2000s.
Exposure on the international stage and first gold medal
The year 2013 marked the start of Bajrang Punia’s stellar rise as a freestyle wrestler on the international stage.
Bajrang began his career competing in the 60kg weight category, winning bronze at the Asian and World Championships in 2013. In 2014, he went one step further by winning silver medals at the Asian championships, the Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Games while competing in the 61kg weight category.
The Haryana wrestler's career then took a spectacular turn in 2016 and 2017, as he won a gold medal at both the Commonwealth Championships (Singapore 2016 and Brakpan 2017) and the Asian Championships in New Delhi.
His medal-winning run didn’t stop there as Bajrang won four medals in 2018, including gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games in the 65kg freestyle category.
In 2019, Bajrang Punia won gold and bronze medals at Asian (2019 Xi'an) and World Championships (2019 Nur-Sultan) respectively. Consequently, the 27-year-old established himself as one of the world's top wrestlers in his category.
Indian wrestling at the Olympics
While Indian wrestlers in the past have won five medals at the Olympics; one silver and four bronze medals, the gold has always eluded them. And that’s something Bajrang, who recently won gold in the 65 kg event at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series 2021 in Rome, will want to change.
It was in Helsinki 1952 that India won their first individual medal in wrestling when Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won a bronze after losing out to eventual gold medalist Shohachi Ishii from Japan. K.D Jadhav became the first-ever Indian to win an Olympic medal for an independent India.
There have only been three Indian wrestlers who have won medals at the Olympics since. Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, and Sakshi Malik. While Sushil Kumar - earlier won bronze at Beijing 2008 - was the first wrestler to win a silver (London 2012), Sakshi scripted history as the first woman Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal following a Bronze bout victory over Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova at Rio 2016.
Bajrang poised for podium finish in Tokyo?
Heading into Tokyo 2020, Bajrang is undoubtedly one of India’s brightest hopes for a medal. He will be looking to do what no Indian wrestler has achieved by winning an Olympic gold and one wouldn’t put it past him from accomplishing his goal.
He’s been gunning for glory at Tokyo ever since he won the Olympic quota for Indian wrestlers after bagging bronze at the 2019 World Championship in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
Winning at Tokyo 2020 though will be easier said than done for Bajrang. Lest we forget, he will be up against reigning world champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov, a familiar foe in Takuto Otoguro and the experienced Haji Aliyev, all of whom possess great wrestling pedigree and the accolades to back it up.
However, despite the stiff competition, Bajrang seems focused and well-placed to battle and overcome the aforementioned wrestlers. Having trained for a month in Russia with coach Emzarios Bentinidis, the 27-year-old Haryana wrestler has worked upon his key strengths - power and endurance.
"I want to come back with a medal. I am working on not giving points early," he said in a recent interview with the Times of India, making his ambitions for Tokyo 2020 clear.
If he can work on his leg defence - his only perceived weakness - Bajrang winning a medal seems like a no-brainer. That said, whether he can bring home gold is what everyone wants to find out.
Going by his focus and determination in the build-up to Tokyo, it'll take a brave man to bet against him at least securing a podium finish and continue Indian wrestling’s rich heritage at the Olympics.
Author: William Paul
Featured photo: SAI Media