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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A trial for the Trial


Whether at the Olympics or at the employment exchange, quota business isn’t fair
PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: June 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Prashanto Banerji | Sushil Kumar | Michael Phelps | Carl Lewis | Gul Mohammed | KD Jhadav | Rio |

Why should a legend in the making…

Wait… legend in the making?? This man IS a legend. He is the closest thing to Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis rolled into one that India has ever had at the Olympics. Do you know how far back you have to go to find an Indian Olympian who won more than one medal at the five ringed circus without leaning on a hockey stick? You’ve got to go way, way back, past when a no ball was just a no ball, past when Leander and Bhupathi would smile at each other, past when Gul Mohammed couldn’t figure out if he should play for India or Pakistan, back past good old Adolf sweating over Jesse Owens smashing world records through his idea of Aryan superiority, back past when gay was just a mood and Bruce Jenner was just a boy dreaming of growing muscles and chest hair instead of…

Well, you get the point. You’ve got to go back, back, back to when those ‘Ding! Ding!’ rust buckets on rails in Kolkata were shiny and new and running alongside and hopping onto them was a little white Kolkata boy (born to colonial parents), practicing his hurdling. By the time he was 23 years old, Norman Pritchard had won India two silvers at the 1900 Paris Olympics. And that was the first and last of it for any individual medals till KD Jhadav broke the jinx in 1952 at the London games. Nearly another half a century went by before Leander Paes won India her next individual medal at the Atlanta games in ’96.

In this land of ethereal Olympic dreams, where medal winners are more precious than hope in the Congress, when a Sushil Kumar wins India back to back Olympic medals, he conquers a new, once-invincible frontier. He is no legend in the making but a legend in the flesh – a giant of a little muscled man who stands taller than most others who have had the great honour and good fortune of wearing the tricolour over their hearts, across all sports.

So why, o' why should a legend like Sushil Kumar Solanki be left to wring his thick muscled arms in anguish as he watches his (and the nation’s) dream of going one better and winning India a gold at Rio this time evaporate in the heat of quota politics?

So what exactly is going on between Sushil Kumar, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and Narsingh Yadav? What would have happened if Sushil Kumar was Iranian or American or Russian?  

WFI is quoting parampara (tradition) and past practice of awarding the Olympic berth to the wrestler who earns the quota spot as its reason for backing Narsingh Yadav while popular opinion backs the two-time medalist.

Most wrestling superpowers, like Iran, USA and Russia, when faced with similar predicaments have gone in for trials. The top two contenders for a quota spot square off on the mat for a best- of- three series and the winner makes the Olympic team. India has had an instance of the court adjudicating in favour of a quota winner, Yogeshwar Dutt, for the 2004 games, when challenged to a trial by Kripa Shankar Patel for the 60kg category, and also an instance of a trial between Kaka Pawar and Pappu Yadav for the 48kg berth at the 1996 Atlanta games. So the Federation’s parampara claims aren’t water tight.

And what’s with parampara anyway? Half of what the Islamic State wants to foist on the world is their interpretation of their parampara. So let us not hang too many towels on that.

The problem with our Federation is that we just don’t have a system. What we have are lobbies. If there is a North Indian bias in the Federation, wrestlers from the western states are left to fend for themselves; and when the Federation rolls west, the boys and girls from the north feel hard done by. Getting in a system of pre-Olympic trials, irrespective of quota wins, will create transparency and keep the contenders sharp. Just to give you an example, please doff your hat at the kind of exacting standards an Iranian wrestler has to measure up against to make the cut.

At the World Championships, where Narsingh won the bronze and the Rio quota berth for the 74 kg category, Alireza Ghasemi of Iran placed fifth and won his country (and that’s what a quota place is – a spot for the country, not the athlete) a quota place. Now Narsingh returned home, confident of a spot on the Rio team. But Ghasemi returned home knowing he had won a spot for his country and now would have to battle the best in his country to help ensure that only the strongest and the best goes to do battle in Iranian colours. It was supposed to be a battle between Ghasemi and 2016 Asian Champion, MostafaHosseinkhani but Hassan Yazdani, the world silver medallist at 70kg, moved up a weight class  and beat all comers at the trial, including Hosseinkhani in a best of  three trial, to claim the 74 kg spot to Rio.

Yazdani is going to Rio knowing he is the best his country has to offer on the mat. He is keen, sharp and confident. And while Sushil Kumar is riling against the Eklavyan treatment that is being meted out to him, Narsingh is hopping on coals wondering what happens next. Will he have to trial against the experienced might of Sushil or would he get carried through to Rio, unsinged by trials, protected by parampara like he had hoped to? Is Sushil being punished for acting like he has grown too big for his boots, which the WFI has so generously handed down to him? By training alone with his own team, and withdrawing from marquee events last year, has Sushil Kumar angered the powers that be and inadvertently brought the curtain down on his illustrious career?

Let’s leave intrigue and conjecture here and move from what is done, and is being done, to what is right, and what should be? What would Dharma do while adjudicating between brothers at arms?

The reason why Iran, followed by Russia and USA are ruling the mat across weights and tournaments, especially in freestyle wrestling, is because of their rigorous selection process and clarity within the system, which ensures that cultural, historical and genetic advantages in the sport are harnessed and expressed without encumbrances at all major meets. Going by their example, if medals and glory are the goals, then there is no looking away from a trial, not just in a certain situation or weight class but across weights and styles. The right thing to do is to send the best candidate, not reward an incidental beneficiary.

What happens if trials are held and Narsingh Yadav, the bigger, younger wrestler, wins?

Narsingh goes to Rio, confident that he has indeed beaten one of the greatest wrestlers of our times and is India’s best bet for a medal. And above that, he surely takes with him a vanquished but gallant Sushil Kumar’s good wishes, and sees a nation united in its desire to see him win.

What happens if Sushil Kumar wins the trials?

In the long run, hopefully it will set a precedent of trials before the Olympics as the norm within the system and wrestlers wouldn’t have to lose dignity and training time over “perceived rights”.

In the immediate scenario, hopefully Narsingh Yadav would realize that if he can’t beat Sushil, he probably won’t win a medal at the games either and it is the better wrestler who is going to the games. And if Sushil does win a medal, the whole country and Sushil himself would have Narsingh to thank for the quota berth. Glory, albeit reflected, will still be his.

More importantly, Narsingh would have learnt a few important lessons on the mat during his loss to Sushil and watching the games on tv would have stoked his hunger. He has youth on his side and all that hunger and learning would still translate into more medals for the lad.

If Sushil wins the trial and then doesn’t win a medal at the games?

The trials prove that whoever won was still our best bet and we’ve to go back to the drawing board and a more experienced and skilled Narsingh Yadav and others for the next one. Tough luck!

What if there are no trials and Narsingh goes to the games and wins?

If that happens, that victory would come in spite of the system and not because of it. Kudos to Narsingh Yadav, but unless the medal he wins is yellow and bright, he will have the country saying Sushil, had he had a “fair chance”, would have gone one better.

….and what if Narsingh returns without a medal?

OH! I wouldn’t want to wish that on poor Narsingh Pancham Yadav. Most Olympic contingents are greeted with indifference after a poor show at the games but Narsingh can expect a hostile reception for keeping Sushil Kumar out and  not measuring up to the Baprola Bomber’s towering legacy. His career might just stall from there.

And what if Narsingh Yadav wins the trial but loses at the games?

Tough luck but he is the best we’ve got and he will get better, surely…

What if either contender gets injured during the trial?

Wrestling isn’t a high impact sport like downhill racing or boxing. Most injuries, at least in freestyle (Greco-roman has the occasional accidental head-butt) wrestling are triggered during grinding push-pull manoeuvres which exacerbate existing (if undetected) weaknesses or imbalances. An injury during the trial will only reveal a weakness that would have shown up anyway in the early rounds at the games. A blessing in disguise for the nation’s  chances are all it will be, weeding out the possibility of an injury hijacking our chances of a podium finish.

Why bother with a trial if you have a settled candidate in the weight class?

A trial isn’t just a process of finding the best wrestler to represent the country. It is also an excellent preparatory exercise for the mental and physical rigours of matches of an Olympic proportion on the mat. And a trial could throw up a surprise like it did in the case of Hassan Yazdani, at the trials in Iran.

Moreover, having a system in place removes uncertainty and facilitates a settled training schedule for the wrestlers in the run-up to the games. It leaves no room for complacency amongst the contenders and gives hope to the outliers.

With a trial, the WFI ensures not just fairness, but also keenness and preparedness in our wrestlers. In the event of a trial, both Narsingh and Sushil will go on the mat knowing that no matter what the result, both the nation’s hopes and their own legacies will be secure in the vaults of time.

India was once home to some of the greatest grapplers of all time, and while that is a story for another afternoon, it is trials and not tradition that will wrest lost glory from the hands of modern champions from other lands.

Here’s pinning hopes on a ‘fair trial’ for Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav, and for a pin for Indian hopes at Rio. Amen!

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017