Like a soap opera, the Narsingh-Sushil saga first had the country fixated on the who will represent India at the Games and then on the subsequent dope test failure of the anointed one. Jonathan Selvaraj puts his ear to the ground and goes beyond the rumour mill to piece together one of the most intriguing tales of rivalry, conspiracy and aspiration in Indian sport
November 4, 2015 was to herald the dawn of a new era for the sport of wrestling in India. Long considered the preserve of the rustic sort, it was about to make its first foray into the world of India’s globalised upwardly-mobile classes. And it was going to do this through what had become a must-have for every Indian sports federation – a glitzy commercial IPL-style league.
It had become de rigueur for every wannabe league to conduct a player auction. So wrestling had to have one too. In the vanilla scented air conditioned environs of the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel in tony South Delhi, bull-necked men with cauliflower ears rubbed shoulders and discussed strategy with men in sharply cut business suits and patent leather shoes.
Who else could have the honour of being the first name on the block other than Sushil Kumar. An Olympic bronze medallist. An Olympic silver medallist. A World Champion. The greatest individual Olympian in Indian sporting history. Undoutedly the face of the Pro Wrestling League. If Indian wrestling was heading into the unknown through the league, the auction was simply a way of reaffirming Sushil Kumar’s place at the very top of the pantheon.
Bidding started at Rs 33 lakh. Auctioneer Bob Hayton didn’t have to cajole the men with the paddles as Sushil’s value steadily rose. When Hayton finally banged his gavel, Sushil had been bought for Rs. 38,20,000. A good start. Next up was Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt. Incredulously, those present watched as the bids rose past Sushil’s mark finally stopping at Rs 39,70,000. Rs 1.5 lakhs more than Sushil – one could already be sure of how the headlines the next day would read. Perhaps knowing how this might be construed, Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan said what played out was simply a quirk thrown up by the nature of the bid process.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems first domino had already been flicked setting off a cascading chain of events that would rock the sport in India. A little over nine months later, the headlines relating to wrestling have been far more scandalous. Last Monday, just a couple of weeks before he was to compete at the Olympics, it was revealed Narsingh Yadav had failed a drug test. The wrestler who was supposed to be India’s representative in the 74kg category at the Rio Olympics claimed innocence. He said he was the victim of sabotage and that his food had been spiked.
For most, allegations of underhandedness seem far removed from the conventional narrative of wrestling. When two competitors step onto the mat they are seen as entering a theatre of virtue. It is an honourable world. The truth right through antiquity and mythology is far more sordid. Valmiki’s Ramayana mentioned the tale of the vaanar king Vaali who was shot from behind by Lord Rama even as he wrestled his brother Sugreeva.
Followers of dangals – the mud wrestling competitions organised across the wrestling heartland – speak of wrestlers who have been left looking vulnerable and foolish after consuming food that has been adulterated with bhang. Subterfuge is never far from the mind of today’s grapplers either.
Even while they shake hands before bouts and touch the feet of elders and seniors, they keep a wary eye out. Yogeshwar Dutt refuses to eat in the common kitchen of the SAI Sonepat center where trained along with Narsingh. A trusted man cooks his food and his supplies are guarded round the clock. “The higher you rise, the more enemies you make,” explains Yogeshwar simply.
Narsingh’s protestations are thus not entirely without precedent. This unsavoury episode may thus be the latest retelling with a new cast of characters of an age old story.
This by itself shouldn’t make this saga the biggest scandal in Indian sport. What does make it so huge is if you take Narsingh’s allegation to its rational conclusion. The FIR registered by the Mumbai-based wrestler at the Rai Police station names a a 17-year-old junior wrestler Jitesh. The identity of suspect, even if he is just a patsy, reveals much more.
The accused teen practices at the Chhatrasal akhara. There is no more premier wrestling training school in the country than Chhatrasal. It is the akhara where Sushil Kumar trains and which is run by his father-in-law Satpal Singh, himself a legendary wrestler of the 80s. Chhatrasal is synonymous with the two.
The FIR doesn’t name Sushil or his father-in-law but it’s obvious to all but the most obtuse that that’s where the accusatory fingers are pointed. “Who had the most to gain?” is the common refrain. It is an enormously severe charge against an athlete who is a public icon and a genuine sporting hero.
The tremors currently rocking the sport were a long time in the making. Wrestling had gone through rebirth pangs post London when the IOC had contemplated dropping the sport from the Olympics programme altogether. It eventually remained a part of the Games but only after largescale changes in rules that fluxed weight categories. In India, that reprieve was just the beginning of the storm as it pitted two fine, world class wrestlers – Sushil and Narsingh — against each other against the backdrop of a federation with few pretensions to professionalism.
After the 2015 World Championships, where Narsingh Yadav won a bronze medal and first earned the right to participate at the Rio Olympics, he was challenged to a playoff by Sushil, who was bidding to compete in his fourth Olympics. Sushil staked his claim through social media, the federation and the courts but failed.
Narsingh seemed to have won the right to compete at Rio but even after his legal victory, there were whispers that he would be undone. When it came to light that there were physical threats being made against him, he was provided with an armed police guard at the SAI campus in Sonepat. And now even as the fears of his supporters played out, the Narsingh’s accusation could take an even greater toll on the sport.
Athletes failing drug tests and subsequently claiming innocence is an unfortunately familiar aspect of modern sport. Yadav isn’t the first and he won’t be the last to claim that he has been framed. The anabolic steroid dianobol may legitimately have found its way into his body through less nefarious means. There are, however, no shortage of believers for Narsingh’s conspiracy theory. Fellow wrestler and Sushil’s childhood friend Yogeshwar Dutt tweeted in support of Narsingh. Even Olympic Gold Quest, who sponsor Sushil, have maintained a deafening silence on the episode, unwilling to risk the prospects of their other athletes. Politicans have waded into the murky affair. Even prime minister Narendra Modi has asked for a speedy probe.
In an unprecedented move, the WFI threw their weight behind the sabotage theory, accepting all the consequences of that line of reasoning. When they had to name a replacement for Narsingh, they ignored Sushil for a relatively untested wrestler in Praveen Rana.
It has been left to Sushil and his side to defend themselves from this smear that hasn’t actually been voiced. It didn’t help that Sushil’s first reaction to the positive test was through a tweet that stated ‘respect had to be earned not demanded.’ He has subsequently taken a more conciliatory tone, issuing statements that he would ‘always support fellow wrestlers’. Satpal though had taken a harder stance. “Narsingh has brought shame on India and wrestling,” he had said. Once the rumours began swirling he had demanded proof for the accusations. “Do a narco test on Narsingh and the truth will come out,” he had thundered at a TV camera.
But the barbs had stung.
The fans, though, are hedging their bets. Several took exception to the gloating from Sushil’s camp. And while most of his compatriots will still opt for discretion, it’s clear the wind is no longer blowing favourably for India’s towering Olympian.
It wasn’t always like this. While Sushil Kumar first achieved fame by breaking the wrestling’s medal drought at the Beijing Olympics, the Chhatrasal akhara was long one of India’s most prestigious and prolific training centers.
A renowned wrestler – with an Asian Games gold medal — in his own right, Satpal was also considered close to Raj Singh, former general secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India. This proximity was bartered for clout. He got a number of camps organised at Chhatrasal itself. He even had a number of his coaches nominated for the Dronacharya award – all ostensibly for coaching Sushil.
Yet even as Sushil and Satpal’s star rose, the latter was rubbing people the wrong way. Allegations of rivalry were levelled after a coach was inexplicably posted out of Chhatrasal. A steady stream of wrestlers have been leaving the akhara over last couple of years too owing to what they say was favouritism towards Satpal’s chosen one.
When BJP MP from Gonda, UP, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh took control of the federation in 2012, it initially seemed things would stay the same. Raj Singh had been instrumental in bringing Sharan into the national setup and Sushil too was considered a supporter of his candidacy. When Narsingh first won the selection trials to participate at the World Championships, the WFI president had told The Indian Express that quota earned by Yadav belonged to the country. “For final selection, we will conduct trials next year, ”Brij Bhushan had then said.
The launch of the Pro Wrestling League played a role in shifting the power balance. Event management firm Prosportify were the official facilitators in helping Brij Bhushan put together the PWL. The old benevolent babudom of sporting federations was a thing of the past but the new satraps with political clout and dreams of glamour still needed sporting expertise and logistical backing which state association chiefs couldn’t deliver.
This is where a top dog corporate like Jindal, with its heavy presence in north of India, stepped in – albeit from the funky, new age HQ of Bengaluru with the Jindal scion, Parth, an Ivy League educated sports enthusiast pumping in money for betterment of Indian sport. The Jindal sporting excellence programme was formed with much of the expertise coming from erstwhile mentors, scouts and brains.
They knew the marketing razzmatazz and had the administrative experience when they entered the wrestling ring, their dominance visible in the fact that six of eight of their wrestlers supported under their excellence programme are Rio bound.
JSW also picked the Bangalore franchise in the league. Furthermore, their top brains clued into international wrestling, which helped the wrestling federation stake out and locate international wrestlers who would headline PWL though the formal invites were sent out by federation men.
Its representative would also informally attend occasional meetings in the lead up to the league. It was an ever increasing clout helping Brijbhushan who was not known to be particularly keyed in to international wrestling and its trends.
Narsingh was thus picked by franchise, Bangalore Yoddhas, even as the auction held another drama unrelated to him. Sushil’s failure at becoming the highest paid Indian led to visible tension. His dithering over participation was worsened by remarks made by rival team owner Parth Jindal. He stated that Sushil was afraid of facing Narsingh.
Claiming that he had been “slighted and not respected”, Sushil pulled out of the league. The actions of its top name playing truant threatened to jeopardise the league and it was going to lead to obvious bitterness.
While the WFI continued to pay an annual grant of Rs 75 lakh to Sushil for his training, the tide was steadily turning against him. Once Narsingh won the Olympic quota at the World Championships, the WFI got their chance.
JSW stood by their wrestler – as they ought to – when it became a straight face-off between Sushil and Narsingh and the question of trials arose – Sushil wanting trials, Narsingh being averse to them. But it was clear for anyone to see that Narsingh’s was the clout of heft, with the Bangalore franchise being the buzzing voice in Brijbhushan’s ear.
The federation, miffed at Sushil’s cavalier treatment of the league, had left it till the end to announce their selection policy – neither committing to trials, nor declaring that they wouldn’t be held. The era of Chhatrasal and Mahabali Satpal’s time as the all-important man had ended the day it became apparent that the federation, in Narsingh, found a wrestler to legitimately deny India’s greatest Olympic wrestler even a chance at a trial.
Brijbhushan was an opportunistic politician from UP, now with BJP, whose embarrassing past included a picture wielding a sword and a role ruckussing during the rath yatra of the early 90s. As such he was a shrewd neutral in the Sushil – Narsingh bout – or non bout as it panned out, but he had been quick to extend support to Narsingh, and shown foolish courage in defying the claims staked by the two time Olympic medallist.
About a month before a preparatory camp for Olympic qualifiers was to be called, the WFI had already decided that no trial would be held. Sushil’s decision to turn to court though appeared to have gone against him. Yogeshwar Dutt came out in opposition to his decision. With his public image taking a beating since moving court, Sushil seemed to have sought to end matters by ending his legal wrangle after the Delhi High court dismissed his plea.
It was there that the matter seemed to have been decided. Only as it turns out, if you were to believe Narsingh, perhaps not. Following his failed test, there’s no shortage of lamenters who say Narsingh could expect little else. He had just cost a Jat wrestler the chance to create Olympic history. And yet he continued to train in Sonepat surrounded by Jats. Would it not have been smarter to Indeed, officials at the WFI say an attempt was made to play the caste card during the time of the Jat reservation quota agitation in March in order to pressure the federation into holding trials.
However, despite believing that Narsingh has been wronged, few, even those from Maharashtra who have enough reason to be cynical are willing to believe either Sushil or Satpal had a direct hand to play. The culprit they believe might likely be a junior wrestler looking to avenge what he might have considered the unbearable insult of a senior.
As it stands, Narsingh will have to prove his innocence not in the court of public opinion where he has plenty of sympathy but rather in the hard nosed world of lawyers and drug specialists. It is not a simple task and there will be no easy solutions to this modern day saga however. Regardless of the outcome of Narsingh’s hearing, damage has been done to the sport in India and to the reputation of its greatest hero.
There are no winners in this contest.