Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, the all-powerful president of the Wrestling Federation of India refused to be pinned down to committing to a date for trials to decide who will head to Rio. Need for selection trials arose specifically to resolve Indian wrestling’s most pertinent question – will Sushil Kumar get a shot at another medal, or will Narsingh Yadav go to the Olympics in the furiously contested 74 kg category.
Two days after the last of qualifications finished taking India’s quota count to six, Brijbhushan declined to be drawn into a decision to announce the schedule for a likely selection trial. “Humne kab kaha trial hoga? Aur mere federation mein se kisine kab yeh bayaan diya ki trial nahi hoga?” he said, continuing the suspense over what could be the Rio-bound contingent’s most-anticipated selection. (“When did we say there would be a trial? And when did we go on record saying there will be no trial?”)
The debate is feverish since it involves Sushil Kumar, India’s only two-time Olympic medallist, as challenger, and the quota-winner (as well as World Championship bronze medallist in 74 kg) Narsingh Yadav.
“The federation hasn’t given this a thought, yet. We are keeping an eye on both wrestlers and when the time is right we will take the right decision in the interest of the nation,” he said.
The question has piqued interest ever since Narsingh secured the quota while winning a Worlds medal last year, even as Sushil was racing towards fitness recovering from a shoulder injury.
The intrigue heightened after it was reliably learnt that the wrestling federation might be contemplating skipping the trials altogether in order to avoid litigation and being dragged to courts in selections involving other weight categories.
However, the potential for this to blow up into a controversy in the coming days is the highest in 74 kg, since the absence of trials would mean denying a chance to India’s two-time Olympic medallist, keen on winning a gold this time.
Crucially, a selection trial will bring complete transparency to this process which would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about India’s intention in sending its best possible medal contender to Rio, and ensure that the opportunity is fair to both the quota-earner and the man with a stronger international record, albeit in a lower weight category.
While it is believed that Brijbhushan will have the final say on the matter, the federation president, a BJP Member of Parliament, insists that it will be a democratic process. “It’s not just one person deciding this. First, the coaching staff’s opinion will be considered. Then, we also have a selection committee,” he stressed.
No date yet
However, he refused to put a date to a possible face-off. “Our team’s just returned from the final qualifying event. This is not the time to get into debates,” he said. While he said he understood the reason why this question would generate so much interest (Main media ke utsuktaa ki kadar kartaa hoo), Brijbhushan declined to answer if a possible decision of not holding trials – and denying Sushil Kumar a chance to stake his claim or Narsingh to assert his credentials beyond doubt – could be potentially risky for the federation. “You are putting words in my mouth,” he said.
When pressed about the decision being left till too late, given some of the top nations like USA (where the 74 kg champ Jordan Burroughs comes from) had announced their squads after due domestic trials, Brijbhushan said, “Humari team bhi announce hui hai. Aap website dekhiye.”
Indeed, Narsingh’s name figures on United World Wrestling’s Rio 2016 page as the qualifier from 74 kg freestyle, though there’s nothing to that effect on the Indian federation’s website. Jean-Daniel Rey, Sports Director of UWW, replied in an email, saying, “The places earned are given to the NOC and not to the athlete who obtained the place. Therefore the NOC can enter the athletes that they want for the Games. The deadline to submit the final entries is the 18th of July.”
This has turned out to be quite a will-they-won’t-they-fight of Manny-Floydesque proportions – complete with the side actors, except that the stakes are higher for the country – as important as they are to the two individuals. While both wrestlers have spoken extensively in the media – Sushil keen on the trials, obviously, and Narsingh not so much, given he’s earned the quota (as pure precedent, India’s always sent the quota–earner) – the situation is unprecedented given Sushil’s reputation and experience.
While the World Championship medal makes Narsingh a worthy quota holder, it would only increase his credentials if he were to beat Sushil in trial(s) when heading to Rio and leave no scope for regrets and hindsight later. Queering the pitch further is the fact that wrestling in India doesn’t operate in isolation restricted to holds and throwdowns – with both contenders capable of dialling relevant political connections and dipping into akhada affiliations.
One stream of thought also is that the federation will leave the decision till the very last to avoid legally entangling other weight categories where too, other wrestlers (of not the same pedigree as Sushil) might challenge the quota winners.
Sushil’s fitness, even if not suspect, isn’t particularly tested, and a later day trial wouldn’t suit him ill either.
However, if the federation is aiming to completely do away with the trials, it’ll have an almighty public relations backlash battle on its hands, given Sushil’s stature. Past that, only a gold from Narsingh Pancham Yadav will silence the doubters. “Desh ka hit.” Federation president Brijbhushan, knows the nation’s interest is primal.