Sushil Kumar is not at the Sports Authority of India centre in Sonepat. Yet, he is everywhere. At the training facility for the country’s elite athletes, where the Olympic-bound team’s camp is being held, there is a wrestling hall named after Sushil. Wrestlers stroll in the ‘Sushil Kumar’ garden and a giant Sushil Kumar poster stares down when the athletes enter the mess. But India’s most decorated wrestler cannot enter the arena named after him.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has denied him access to the ongoing national camp until the Delhi High Court decides — the hearing is on Friday — whether a selection trail should be held in the 74 kilogram category between Sushil and Narsingh Yadav, or the latter, the quota-place winner, should go to the Rio Olympics.
Over the past week Narsingh, who has been training at the Sonepat centre, would have seen these gigantic reminders of the legend of Indian wrestling, whom he may have to face in a trial. On Thursday, Narsingh appeared calm and collected. A constable with a revolver shadows him wherever he goes, be it the gym, a jog or even a toilet break. There is a perceived threat to his life and hence the security cover.
While Narsingh trained at the SAI centre, Sushil, who is based at the Chhatrasal stadium in north Delhi had taken a day off on Thursday. The two-time Olympic medalist turned 33. A havan was performed and it was attended by his coach Mahabali Satpal and 400 wrestlers.
“We performed a havan in the morning. We need blessings from the almighty a day before a very important day for us,” Satpal said. The fight to push for a trial, spearheaded by Satpal, has to a certain extent affected the unflappable Sushil.
“It has been a stressful period for him but he did not miss training even once. He deserved this break on his birthday,” Satpal says. In Sonepat, Mohinder Singh, the policeman who shadows Narsingh, is on duty at the SAI centre till Friday.
He keeps a constant vigil from the room allocated to him, which is opposite Narsingh’s. He likes this change — the air-conditioned accommodation is much more comfortable than the creaky chair and fan at the local police station.
When he was assigned to protect Narsingh, Mohinder Singh didn’t know who Narsingh or Sushil was, apart from the fact that they were both pehelwans. But he realises they are important people right now. “Two of us are guarding him, sir. Ek mein aur doosra yeh,” he says, as he lifts his shirt and points towards his revolver. But he is confident it won’t come to that.
Jagmal Singh, India’s assistant coach and Narsingh’s mentor since childhood, too believes the ‘threat’ to the wrestler was blown out of proportion.
“Sushil isn’t a criminal, he wouldn’t harm anyone. He is a legend who is fighting for himself. I feel bad for him,” Jagmal says.
‘Trial or no trial’
At Sonepat, wrestlers talk, sometimes in hushed tones, about who should go to Rio. And like all debates, there are strong voices on both sides. London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt says the topic of ‘trial or no trial’ has been a distraction for the wrestlers.
For the first five-six days of the camp, the wrestlers were all talking about whether Sushil was right in asking for a trail or whether Narsingh had earned the right to go to Rio as he had won the quota at the World Championships.
“The concern is that if trials are held, then wrestlers who have not earned the quota will suddenly get a chance for no good reason. We have been preparing in a particular way so if suddenly we have to work for trials, it upsets our plans,” Yogeshwar, who has won a quota in the 65 kg category, says.
“All these years, the wrestlers who have won the quota have been sent for the Olympics. So it’s tough to make exceptions now. But ultimately, it is the federations call,” Yogeshwar adds.
Jagmal says he has been more anxious through this ordeal than Narsingh himself. Donovan Pillay, head of high performance with JSW Sports who support Narsingh, echos this feeling.
“I was expecting Narsingh to be a lot more worried about it but at times I am more concerned,” Pillay says. Last week, Sushil approached the Delhi High Court after Narsingh was selected to represent India in the 74kg category at the Rio Olympics.
Sushil has demanded that a trial be held to select the best wrestler in the category but the WFI has stuck to its stand, saying that a wrestler who wins Olympic quota has traditionally been a part of the Indian contingent.
The WFI submitted its affidavit in the court earlier this week where it is believed to have explained reasons why trials cannot be held. From Sushil’s lack of fitness to him trying to ‘avoid’ Narsingh (during the Pro-Wrestling League), the federation has pointed at several reasons for their inability to hold trials.
Yogeshwar, though, believes it shouldn’t have reached this point. “Yeh mudda galat uthaya hai. Timing bhi galat hai…sab kuch galat (This is a wrong issue that’s been taken up. Timing is wrong…everything is wrong),” he says. “If I were in Sushil’s place, I wouldn’t have done this.”
The story so far
July 2, 2015 Sushil Kumar pulls out of selection trials for the World Championships, also the first Olympic qualifying event, citing shoulder injury.
July 8 The WFI says if Narsingh wins quota, trials will be conducted next year to select the best wrestler among the two.
September 13, 2015 Narsingh wins bronze at the Worlds and clinches an Olympic berth.
December 10, 2015 Sushil pulls out of Pro Wrestling League citing injury.
May 6, 2016 The WFI says if trials are held in one weight category, then wrestlers in the other categories may demand the same.
May 12, 2016 WFI, via Indian Olympic Association, has already sent a list of probables to the organisers. Sushil’s name does not feature in the list.
May 12, 2016 Sushil formally writes a letter to WFI, seeking trials.
May 12, 2016 WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh says their tradition has been to send wrestlers who have won quota and hence Sushil won’t be considered.
May 16, 2016 Sushil approaches the Delhi High Court, seeking a trial against Narsingh to decide which one of the two gets to go to the Rio Olympics.
May 17, 2016 High Court refuses to interfere. Orders that WFI and Sushil sit across the table and sort out the issue. Sets May 27 as the next date.
May 18, 2016 Sushil meets Sharan with request to conduct trials.
May 20, 2016 National camp for those who have won Olympic quota begins at SAI, Sonepat.