Forgive me if I afforded myself a chuckle or two when I first heard this from a well-known Mumbai sports official a decade ago. The sticky issue was about letting out the city’s few available maidans for grand marriages; as a result, very little hockey was being played. “Beta, tum hi socho. Agar shaadiya nahi hui, toh bachhe nahi honge. Bachhe nahi hue toh aage chalke sport koun khelega?”
India’s brilliant sporting future hinged on this gentleman’s rationalisation for leasing out sports fields; so, forgive me if I afforded myself a lifetime’s scepticism about what sports officials routinely utter in this country.
Ten years on, and with the Rio Olympics at stake, similar hare-brained ways of thinking (or non-thinking) have ceased being funny. When a high court spells out that two wrestlers are in danger of becoming pawns in a federation’s politics but is unable to solve a sporting logjam in the only way it should — a wrestling bout on the mat — it leaves behind a lingering doubt about whether India is putting its best foot forward in Rio.
When Brijbhushan and Raj Singh become central to the discourse and Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav’s relative wrestling merits are not even deemed worthy of a debate, there is something wrong with the sport. This is not about Sushil Kumar or his reputation and two Olympic medals — all that is history. It’s about sending India’s best grappler to this summer Olympics, which sadly is not a question a legal court is equipped to answer.
The answer might well be Narsingh Yadav — though his camp and fans are letting down their hero by defanging the fighter who is perfectly capable of beating Sushil Kumar and conquering the world stage. Suggestions that a face-off will be openly rigged against Narsingh sounds ludicrous; that the federation is helpless in finding a neutral referee is just a lame excuse, and that Sushil will injure Narsingh is the most cynical argument protecting the younger wrestler from a testing trial. Narsingh is a World Championship podium winning wrestler who earns his bread, butter, badam and milk from routinely winning grappling bouts — which is all that a trial is. If the prospect of fighting on the mat constitutes mental agony, then that’s a supremely suspect frame of mind heading into the Olympics.
The Americans are already preparing to celebrate gymnast Simone Biles as the star of Rio Games after her back-to-back World titles, but the 19-year-old will undergo national trials to make the US team as late as the first week of July. The Americans want to be absolutely sure; hence, “Trials? This late in the day? It will upset the athletes mental condition” is a singularly unfounded fear.
There is no shame in Sushil exhausting every last option in asking for a trial.
An Olympics is hardly the place to hand out farewell gifts; so this is not about according a legend some respectful favour. Trouble is in not treating him like an ordinary challenger staking claim to an Olympic berth.
There’s a similar train of baggage plaguing tennis, which in 20 years of having three different World No 1s in doubles just can’t seem to win India even a bronze (in doubles) in the Olympics. Leander Paes has won the last four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles but isn’t on fantastic terms with Sania Mirza. Whether Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza (they share an excellent rapport and mistrust of Paes) are indeed India’s best suited pairing, instead of a possible Sania-Leander combine, is not even being discussed. Their torrid past shadows Indian tennis to such an extent that even the best tennis brains in the country have given up on an objective assessment of this trick question.
The Federation might have known about this imminent dilemma the day the tennis stars dispersed from London in 2012. Four years on, there is zero clarity, consensus or conviction as the tennis contingent gets picked in a cocktail of compromises. In wrestling, the pot began to boil last September and the world sat back and watched it simmer.
India has stuttered to a point where everything except sporting considerations have come into play when sending athletes to the Olympics. That or the country is indifferent to and ignorant of both sports.
It would’ve been wildly funny, if it wasn’t this tragic. Two decades of celebrating doubles greatness, and the country has no answers to who constitutes a winning pairing. While beyond the gloss of the legal victory, the Narsingh-Sushil battle continues to refuse a logical mat finish.