India won’t return empty-handed from the Rio Olympics. After an embarrassingly long wait that included some agonising fourth-place finishes and abject surrenders, India’s medals tally will no longer read “0”. The credit for that goes to Sakshi Malik. The unassuming young wrestler broke the duck, winning a bronze medal by beating Kyrgyztan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova. The 23-year-old Rohtak girl, whose family was vilified by locals for allowing their daughter to pursue wrestling, is now the country’s first woman medallist in wrestling — her victory was unexpected, especially after one of India’s best prospects, Vinesh Phogat, missed her opportunity after suffering a knee injury.
But that, in essence, captures Sakshi’s career. Throughout, she has been overshadowed by the Phogats, considered to be the first family of women’s wrestling in India. Sakshi fights in the 58 kg category, which for years was dominated by Geeta, who became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics four years ago in London. Although she has got the better of Geeta in recent years, Sakshi was never given a look-in because of her rival’s reputation. But it changed during the Olympic qualification in May. Geeta was suspended by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) because of disciplinary issues. That gave Sakshi an opportunity, which she grabbed with both hands.
Her medal also reinforces wrestling’s rise as the biggest medal sport for India at the Olympics and pushes to the background the pre-Games Sushil-Narsingh controversy. In the last eight years, wrestlers have rarely returned home from international meets without medals. During the same period, boxing and shooting — the two other sports in which Indians had started to do well — have stagnated. The age-old akhara tradition, where seniors take juniors under their wing, has ensured that wrestling continues to have a robust pool and the skill set of elite wrestlers gets passed to the following generation. So far it has been the young impressionable boys who watched the greats and followed them on the medal path. Sakshi has shown, even the girls are getting inspired.