Person of the week

Man of the Mat

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The grappler from Haryana wins India’s first wrestling gold medal at the Asian Games in 28 years
At every multi-sport tournament like the Olympics, most countries traditionally excel in a few disciplines. The US almost always has a great show in athletics and swimming; Britain in cycling, rowing and athletics; China in gymnastics and swimming. Such specialisation almost always assures a country a rich haul of medals. Anything apart from these is a bonus.

For India, the specialisation has to be wrestling and boxing. Every time the country heads to an international tournament, its greatest hope lies with these two disciplines.

But wrestling has often flattered to deceive. Despite the much celebrated tradition of akhadas and pehelwans in India, the country’s contestants have only on a few occasions put up the strong showing everyone seems to expect of them. They pick up a few medals, but there is never complete dominance. The only exception in recent times has perhaps been Sushil Kumar, who is a certainty for a medal.

Also, while Indians are now beginning to excel and win medals in games like badminton, athletics and shooting, the quality of wrestling still remains the same. It is not that the wrestlers lack in technical finesse or quality, but for some reason, their promise materialises only occasionally.

How else does one explain the fact that before the present ongoing tournament, India did not win a single gold medal for wrestling in an Asian Games since 1986 in Seoul? This drought ended recently, when the 31-year-old grappler from Haryana, Yogeshwar Dutt, secured a gold medal in the 65 kg weight category.

What was impressive about Dutt’s performance was the manner of his win. Sushil Kumar, the most illustrious of the Indian wrestlers, had pulled out of the tournament, and Dutt was expected to lead the Indian campaign.

But after a close encounter in the quarter-final with North Korean Jinhyok Kang, a game Dutt won 3-1, he almost lost to Yeerlanbieke Katai in the semi-finals. The Chinese wrestler dominated the proceedings throughout the game, leading 9-7. Dutt turned it around in the dying stages of the game. Doing away with his leg-locks, or ‘phitleys’, considered his stronger suit, he managed to pin down his opponent in the last few seconds of the game and secured a ‘victory by fall’ win. Had it gone to the points system, it would have meant another opportunity lost. The game was, however, physically draining and Dutt needed help to get off the mat.

In the finals—another close game— Dutt won by way of points (3-0).

Dutt has for long lived in the shadow of Kumar. The two are roughly of the same age, supposedly close friends, and have both been part of India’s wrestling contingent for several years.

Kumar has had a far better career, winning back-to-back silver and bronze medals at the London and Beijing Olympics, and a number of gold medals in the World Championships and Commonwealth Games. He is always India’s brightest medal prospect and a far better recognised face on TV.

Dutt hasn’t always showcased his talent, despite being in the top league for several years. He first shot to the limelight only in 2006, during the Asian Games at Doha, where despite having lost his father days before and sustaining a knee injury, he secured a bronze medal. He then came close to winning a medal in the 2006 Beijing Olympics and finally won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. With the Asian gold, he has finally emerged from the shadows.