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Home 2019 World Wrestling Championships Will Greco-Roman wrestling always be the poor cousin of Freestyle category?

Will Greco-Roman wrestling always be the poor cousin of Freestyle category?

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Overshadowed by the glamour of Freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, for long, has been battling an identity crisis as the poor cousin to its popular counterpart. The lacklustre performances over the years have been of no help to lift its image in the country contrary to the allurement of the Freestyle wrestlers. Precisely, the Greco-Roman style of wrestling has not taken many steps in improving its image, which would only come probably after a win at a big-ticket event.

Greco-Roman wrestling, a story of hits and misses

Wrestling has been in the news in the country since 2008 when Sushil Kumar won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Since then, India have kept its medal tally ticking consistently at all the major events in Freestyle wrestling. It is beyond doubt that Freestyle wrestling has been the backbone of India at the Olympic. However, despite the presence of Indian wrestlers in Greco-Roman Style at Olympics their outings have been of nominal in nature. The Greco-Roman category is popular in the East European countries, and India’s tryst with this category has been the tale of hits and misses.

Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won a bronze medal in the 66 kg at the Wrestling World Championship
Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won a bronze medal in the 66 kg at the Wrestling World Championship

It was only at the 2010 Commonwealth Games which was hosted in New Delhi, India had a maximum medal haul with four gold, one silver and two bronze medals. The biggest moment of glory in Greco-Roman wrestling came in 2013 when Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won a bronze medal in the 66 kg at the Wrestling World Championship. He went on to participate at the Asian Games in 2014 but had to retire owing to a shoulder injury. In 2015, at the Senior Nationals, he secured a bronze. Tragedy struck in 2016 when his name appeared alongside wrestler Narsingh Yadav in doping charges for which he also had to face a four-year ban. “It was a setback for me; however, I have been rigorously training to stage a comeback in 2020,” says Tulsi.

Sandeep Tulsi Yadav at 2013 World Wrestling Championship
Sandeep Tulsi Yadav at 2013 World Wrestling Championship

With scarce world-class silverwares, Greco-Roman wrestling desperately seeks a big medal for a complete make-over of its stature in India. Despite having a vibrant wrestling culture in rural India through akharas and regular dangals, only Freestyle wrestling has thrived with a mass following in the country’s northern and western region that has produced numerous formidable competitors of this sport at Olympics for India. Tulsi adds:

The Greco-Roman style of wrestling was never that much popular in India, it has always been popular in European countries. I have travelled across 20-25 countries in the world, where I have seen Greco-Roman is followed more religiously than Freestyle, which has a heavy concentration in India only.

Where it lacks the edge?

Greco-Roman, which prohibits a wrestler from using legs during the bout, arrived late in India and is limited to a few Sports Authority India (SAI) centres and a few schools and universities, whereas traditional Indian wrestling and upbringing of a wrestler is always based on freestyle, which heavily dominates the akharas in India. One trend that has been seen for quite some time is that freestyle wrestlers change their category to Greco-Roman when they fail to do well at the senior level. Freestyle is more dependent on strength and stamina compared to speed, which is required more in the latter category.

 Harpreet Singh won a silver at the Asian World Championship in 2019
Harpreet Singh (82kg) won a silver at the Asian Wrestling Championship in 2019

It took a Sushil Kumar to bring an Olympic medal to give freestyle wrestling a significant shot in the arm. Unless and until the same happens with Greco-Roman, things won’t change for good. Though Greco-Roman is being adapted in many schools and universities, to gain further mileage, it needs way more attention than how it is treated right now. While freestyle wrestling gains further impetus through the Pro Wrestling League that has started like many other sports leagues in the country, Greco-Roman has remained out of contention in the league as well. Owing to its dynamicity, Freestyle wrestling is liked by spectators because it allows grapplers to be more attacking by using both arms and legs, while Greco-Roman wrestlers use only upper body, which actually is a test of endurance for the athletes. Tulsi says:

Today we have a lot of popular players like Sushil Kumar, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, who have become household names in India. Although WFI has done immense for us, I feel there is a lack of media attention towards the Greco-Roman category, which should be changed. My bronze medal win in 2013 had a good impact in India, which culminated into the opening of a lot of avenues for the wrestlers.

A bright future?

Despite a series of poor shows at World Championships every year, there has been some development which can chart the future course for Greco-Roman wrestling. With a particular focus on this category, training schools have been set up, and it has been part of wrestling competitions in schools as well.

The Wrestling Federation of India brought in a foreign coach, Temo Kasarashvili from Georgia, who helped wrestlers improve their technique. All those positive changes have started producing results as well. India had the best medal haul in the Asian Wrestling Championships this year with three silver coming from Gurpreet Singh (77kg), Sunil Kumar (87kg) and Harpreet Singh (82kg) and a solitary bronze medal Gyanender (60kg). The upcoming Wrestling World Championship can also be a game-changer for the Greco-Roman wrestlers if they can secure the maximum number of Olympic quota at that tournament, for which they have had camps in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Gurpreet Singh (77kg) won a Silver at the Asian Wrestling Championship in 2019
Gurpreet Singh (77kg) won a Silver at the Asian Wrestling Championship in 2019

Harpreet Singh, who hails from Sangrur District in Punjab, is being touted as the wrestler who can channelise a change in Greco-Roman category like Sushil did for Freestyle category. He switched from Freestyle to Greco-Roman a decade back. Another significant change that India has noticed is the increase in the number of coaches in this category compared to the earlier days. Though the number, in contrast to Freestyle coaches is quite less, it can give a big bolster to athletes pursuing this category.

Tulsi Yadav concludes, “We have some good wrestlers in contention like Harpreet and Gurpreet, and this World Championship can be a breakthrough moment for Greco-Roman wrestlers in India.”

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