For close to four months, Jitender Kumar toiled for hours on the wrestling mat to improve his attacking game. But ironically, it was a nervy, ultra-defensive show that earned him a place in the Indian team for next month’s Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.
It means if the 25-year-old reaches the final in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, not only will he make it to his maiden Olympics, but he will also shut the doors on the hopes of two-time medalist Sushil Kumar and rookie Gourav Baliyan, billed as the next big thing in Indian wrestling. That, of course, is subject to the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) sticking by its policy, in the absence of any written guideline. But as things stand, Jitender has his – and Sushil’s – fate in his hands.
Such a scenario has emerged after Sushil, citing injury, opted out of the national selection trials for the Asian Championship and Asian Olympic Qualifiers. In his absence, Jitender clinched a berth but the WFI later said they would conduct a re-trial in weight categories where India don’t win a medal in the continental championship, which concluded here on Sunday.
That left the door ajar for Sushil, but Jitender won a silver on Sunday – his maiden Asian Championship medal – which means he will get a shot at earning a Tokyo Olympics quota before his idol. “We will stick to what had been said before – those who have won a medal at the Asian Championship will not have to give another trial. Jitender has won a silver, so he will be in the team for the qualifiers. It will be unfair on him otherwise,” WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh said.
While Sushil will have to wait and see if he gets a second chance, Rio Olympics bronze medalist Sakshi Malik (62kg category) has an opportunity to make the cut for the Bishkek-bound team after the WFI decided to hold trials in her weight category. India, who won a record 20 medals, could not finish on the podium in women’s 62kg and 76kg classes along with the 60kg category in Greco-Roman style. “Trials will be held in these three categories only,” Sharan said.
The WFI’s decision will come as a relief for Jitender, who looked a tad anxious at the start of the day. That reflected in the way he wrestled as he appeared to be fighting with an intention to not lose, rather than going all out for a win, which his coach Shako Bendinitis has been working on. The 10-0 win over Thailand’s Parinya Chamnanjan in the opening round was his only dominant performance.
After defeating Iran’s Mostafa Mohabbali Hosseinkhani in a low-scoring quarterfinal, Jitender’s last-four bout against Mongolia’s Sumiyabazar Zandanbud was another dull, defensive affair. Both wrestlers could not manage any attacking moves and earned just penalty points because of the passivity of their opponent. Jitender ultimately won the bout 2-1, which took him into the final – as well as into the team for the Olympic qualifiers.
Another cagey display in the final saw him lose to Kazakhstan’s Daniyar Kaisanov 3-1. The defeat, however, will not bother him. If Jitender reaches the finals of the Olympic qualifier, he will secure an Olympic quota for himself. If not, it will be a three-way race between him, Sushil and Baliyan for the final qualifying tournament in April-May.
India have so far won four Olympic quotas – Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Ravi Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg).