Jitender was convinced the liquid offered to him by the pharmacist was an energy drink. The ‘rotund, bespectacled’ salesman had told him so, and the then teenaged wrestler from Haryana’s Jhajjar district had no reason to doubt him. At least that’s how Jitender’s version of the story goes. A couple of weeks later, in December 2012, he won the silver medal in the 74kg category at the national championship in Gonda. As is the case with most medal winners, the anti-doping officials collected his urine sample, which returned positive. Jitender was slapped a two-year suspension and the grappler’s fledging career looked over even before he could spread his wings.
Jitender, now 23, has got a new lease of life. He, rather incredibly, finds himself back in the Indian team – and on the plane to Iran for next week’s World Cup – because of a failed dope test of another wrestler, Narsingh Yadav. “My coach always told me, good things happen to good people,” says Jitender, as he cools down after a few routine training drills at the Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat centre. The six-foot tall wrestler is dripping in sweat after a couple of dozen rope climbs. There’s a tiny blood clot on his right ear, which he ‘guesses’ is due to one of those sparring sessions. “It’s that kind of a sport. You pick up so many injuries that you can’t remember which one is which.”
And he wouldn’t care less. At times he still has to pinch himself to realise that he is actually part of the national camp and is not day dreaming. Two years ago, being part of the national team and travelling for the World Cup was not even a dream as Jitender went from one dangal to another to make both ends meet and stay in touch with the sport during his ban.
When he received the suspension order from the National Anti Doping Agency in December 2012, Jitender had decided not to return to the mat again. “For the first few days, I didn’t step out of my room. Ultimately, my coach Jaiveer dragged me a local akhara. I couldn’t hold back my tears when I saw those children wrestle,” Jitender says. “I had lost two most crucial years. I had spent 10 years of my life doing just one thing, and now suddenly I was told I couldn’t do it anymore.”
But his coach had a plan. That evening, Jaiveer and Jitender sat down with a calendar and marked the dates when local dangals – both, mud and mat – would take place. Since this form does not come under any governing body as such, a suspended wrestler can take part in it.
Bharat Kesari titles
So over the next 12 months, Jitender travelled to various corners of the country looking for wrestlers, who were ready to challenge him. He claims to have won 12 titles, including the Bharat Kesari and Bharat Kumar crowns. “That helped me a lot. It brought me out of depression and kept me connected to the sport.”
His ban was lifted in December 2014 and he made a winning return, clinching the gold medal at the 2015 Kerala National Games. Later that year, he followed it up with a national championship gold. But those tasks were easier as neither Narsingh nor Sushil Kumar were a part of the tournaments.
Once they returned, Jitender was automatically pushed to the background. “But it was okay, I guess. I learnt a lot from Sushil. Last year, we spent a few days together at the camp. He saw that I was slightly on the heavier side so advised me to cut down on ghee and have honey with warm water. That, coupled with disciplined training with him, resulted in some weight loss,” says Jitender, who won a Commonwealth Championship gold last year and managed a fourth-place finish at the Asian Championships.
Soon, though, the wrestling camp would descend into turmoil. The infamous episode between Sushil and Narsingh is still a topic of intrigue here. “That time I wasn’t in the camp. I had an ankle surgery and gone home. After I returned, there was an atmosphere of fear,” he says. “Aisi bhi harkat ho jaati hai toh acha nahi lagta. Kisika bharosa nahi kar sakte (It’s not good if something like this happens. You can’t trust anyone).”
His injury meant Parveen Rana was preferred as a back up to Narsingh (and preferred over Sushil) at the Rio Olympics. And once again with fate siding with him, injury to Rana has resulted in him being the number one choice in this controversy-laden weight category.
Jitender has no qualms in saying that the guilty should be punished in the Sushil-Narsingh case. Having served a dope ban himself, he can relate to the emotional turmoil Narsingh would have gone through. “Mujhe pata hai woh kitna dukhi hoga…kaise khud ko samjhata hoga (I know how sad he would be…how he would be convincing himself),” he says, shaking his head.
Spontaneously, he repeats the words his coach Jaiveer told him when he was suspended. “Good things happen to good people,” he says, staring down at the wrestling mat. “You know, the chemist who sold me that liquid, his shop was shut months after I was suspended,” he looks up, smiling. “Well, bad things happen to bad people, too.”