No Holds Barred

Laxman Bhandari (right) in a bout with a student at his coaching centre in west Delhi
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Arm wrestling has become a proper competitive sport in India

THE ARM, REGARDED by many as the strongest right arm in Delhi, perhaps even across the country, is bent and supple today: at its other end, it has the lightest of things, a cellphone. Just a few weeks earlier, it had travelled all the way to Kyrgyzstan, to its distant village of Bosteri, where, under chalk dust and immense strain, it pinned down arm after arm—from Japan and Korea to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. But today, as it wields a cellphone, the man attached to it doesn’t seem to regard it with any particular fondness. “I don’t know... it’s just an arm,” says Laxman Bhandari, and there is a bit of a pause in the conversation, where he passes the handset to his left arm and considers the object of my query. “Yeah, it is a very regular type of arm.”

Bhandari, a fairly short but thickset man in his 40s, is an arm wrestler. He has none of that swagger you associate with strong men. He is a marketing professional in a large media house in Delhi. He parts his hair, like a good boy, from the left. But true love emerges when he puts both his arms through the wringer, he says. When he is not competing as an athlete, he puts in time as a coach and as general secretary of the Indian Arm Wrestling Federation. He also runs a gym and a training centre for arm wrestlers, where he imparts tricks and techniques of the sport to amateurs and professionals.

Bhandari was part of a 10-man contingent from India, which won three gold, three silver and four bronze medals at the 16th Asian Arm Wrestling Championship in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month—one of the best performances, he says, at a premier international tournament after many years. He himself won a gold medal with his right arm and a bronze with his left.

To the layman, arm wrestling may appear little more than a hobby. But its athletes say it is anything but. They train for big championships with the enthusiasm of Olympic athletes: they do high-protein diets, take supplements, meditate and do yoga, work on speed and stamina, and spend hours in the gym, lifting weights and working on the slightest of body parts, from the wrist to fingers.

There are all sorts of people in the sport—marketing professionals from metropolitan cities, and clerks and government officials from small towns to teachers, accountants, students and mothers. Daljeet Singh Goraya from Uttarakhand, who won a gold and silver at the Asian Arm Wrestling Championship this year, has one of those rare marriages. His wife Babli Jasbeer Goraya also happens to be an arm wrestler. She won a silver and a bronze medal in the same tournament.

Arm wrestling became a proper competitive sport in India sometime in the late 1970s when a few individuals, looking at the popularity of informal bouts among enthusiasts—it has been a locker room test of muscular strength and endurance for longer than anyone can remember—formed the Indian Arm Wrestling Federation. This entity would organise state and national level competitions. But the game picked up only in the 1990s, according to Bhandari, when several women—many of them from the Northeast—began taking to it.

The numbers have been improving since. “We had some 750 participants from 27 states at the national championship this year [in May in Delhi],” Bhandari says. “Can you believe it? It’s, by far, our highest number of participants.” One reason was that they introduced left-handed competitions for the first time. Many left-handers eventually picked up medals at the tournament in Kyrgyzstan.

So what do you need to be a champion arm wrestler? A common belief that one has to be born with great physical strength, that the sport is all brawn, isn’t necessarily true. “You may be really huge and have great physical strength. And that is useful,” says Bhandari. “But it won’t matter most times because people have no idea how to utilise it effectively.” The likes of Bhandari say the game requires a large amount of technique and practice. Athletes need to learn how to secure a good grip, and how to use their fingers and bodies. Sometimes they need to build speed, and, occasionally, depending on their challenger, play for time and wear the opponent down by refusing to give in, before going for a hard-knuckle pindown. Some matches go on for several minutes as a challenger waits for his opponent to lose resolve.

“For me, the most important thing is you can’t ever lose concentration. That’s the easiest way for someone to beat you,” Bhandari says. And the best feeling in this sport? “That’s when you take your opponent down. The look that comes onto their faces—that sinking feeling.”