Sakshi Malik lost in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympic Games. Yet she ended up with a bronze in the 58 kg category. While a defeat in the early rounds means an exit from the Olympics for athletes in most sports, in wrestling, the rules are different.
Even if a grappler loses in the early rounds, he/she gets another chance to finish on the podium via the repechage format if the wrestler they lost to eventually reaches the final. In Sakshi’s case, she got an opportunity to win the bronze medal because the opponent she lost to in the 58 kg freestyle quarterfinal, Russia’s Valeria Koblova, qualified for the final.
The term repechage was introduced to the Indian sport vocabulary in 2008, when Sushil Kumar won the bronze medal at the Beijing Games. Four years later, his understudy Yogeshwar Dutt followed suit. This time, it’s Sakshi.
Borrowed from French term repêcher, which is translated as ‘rescue’, repechage means just that. It ‘rescues’ wrestlers who lose early, and gives them a second chance to win an Olympic medal.
In wrestling, a lot depends on the luck of draw — be it the Olympics or the World Championships. Unlike other sports, where top players are given seedings to ensure easy early round matches, wrestlers do not have that luxury.
So, while you’ll never see Roger Federer take on Novak Djokovic in the first round, that is not the case in wrestling, which can pit the two top ranked players in the first round itself, since the draw is random.
To even the possibilities arising out of this situation, the sport uses the repechage format. So all the wrestlers who lose against the eventual finalists get a second chance. They are divided into two groups — ones who lost to the first finalist and another who were beaten by the second. So the wrestlers Sakshi faced in her two repechage bouts were also defeated by Russia’s Koblova.
Repechage matches begin with the loser of the first round facing the second round loser. The winner then takes on the wrestler eliminated in the subsequent round, and so on. The two group winners receive a bronze medal each.