Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat —India's medal prospects at Tokyo Olympics in wrestling
Out of the seven Indian wrestlers who have qualified, the seasoned Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have a good chance of winning a medal. Here's an analysis of their chances.
Wrestling has been one such sport for India that has fetched the country medals regularly since the 2008 Olympics. India will be sending a team of seven wrestlers to the Tokyo Olympics to continue the medal legacy at the Games.
Of the seven wrestlers, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia, and Ravi Kumar have been seeded in their respective categories for the Tokyo Olympics. Both Bajrang and Deepak have been seeded second in the 65kg and 86kg category, while Ravi has been seeded fourth in the 57kg. Star female wrestler Vinesh is the top seed in the 53kg category.
Sumit Malik, who had won an Olympic quota in the 125kg category, has been provisionally suspended by world body UWW for failing a dope test.
Out of the Indians who have qualified, the seasoned Bajrang and Vinesh have a good chance of winning a medal.
Touted as one of the best medal hopes for India, Bajrang Punia will lead in 65kg men's freestyle challenge in Tokyo. The only Indian to win three medals at wrestling world championships, Bajrang earned a berth to Tokyo at World Championship in Kazakhstan in 2019, where he had won a bronze.
Since earning his qualification, Bajrang has won gold medals at the Rome Ranking Series in 2020 and 2021 and silver medals at the two successive Asian Championships. However, his has to climb a steep hill in his quest for a gold medal.
If one delves into Bajrang's draw in the 65KG weight category, he is going to face stiff opposition in the most competitive category of the world. Seeded second, Bajrang is preceded by reigning world champion (2019) and two-time European champion (2016, 2018) Russia's Gadzhimurad Rashidov. Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov, the silver medallist at the 2019 World Championships, is seeded in the third position and Hungary's Ismail Muszukaev in the fourth position. Besides, his weight category will also have fierce competitors like Japan's Takuto Otoguro and Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan.
As per his seedings, Bajrang would evade competing against Muszukaev and probably would be facing Rashidov in the final. However, before that, Bajrang would want to evade his Achilles Heel Otoguro to enter the semifinals safely. So far, Bajrang has faced Otoguro thrice, where the Japanese had the upper hand on Bajrang every time.
In the semis, Bajrang could face Niyazbekov. Though the Kazakh had defeated Bajrang in the Worlds semifinal, the Indian had the last laugh when they met for the last time at the Ali Aliyev tournament in June.
Hailing from the legendary Phogat family, Vinesh was the first Indian wrestler to book her ticket to the Olympics. Currently ranked no.1, Vinesh has earned the top seed in women's 53kg freestyle wrestling category.
Vinesh shoulders plenty of hope for India as she aims to go past her anti-climactic career-threatening injury of the Rio 2016 Olympics and fetch the elusive medal for India. Her rise to the summit of the world rankings is laden with gold medals in Asian Championships, Asian Games, and Commonwealth Games and also a bronze in the World Championships.
The Haryana lass has had a dream year in 2021 so far, where she has fetched gold medals in all the four tournaments she was a part of, including the Asian Championships.
Vinesh furthers as a medal prospect owing to North Korea pulling out of the Olympics and averting a chance to meet reigning world champion Pak Yong-mi.
However, her journey for the gold medal hunt will not be a cakewalk. In her category, she will have challengers like the second-seeded Mayu Mukaida of Japan, who is two-time world champion (2016, 2018), followed by Pan American champion Luisa Valverde as the third seed and China's Pang Qianyu, who is a two-time world championships bronze medallist (2018, 2019) in the fourth seed. Besides, she would also be trying to avert Sweden's Sofia Mattsson.
Vinesh is destined to meet Qianyu in the semis of the Tokyo Olympics. Qianyu and Phogat were expected to face-off in the recently concluded Asian Championships, but it did not happen as China pulled out of the tournament due to covid-19 related concerns. The Indian, though, have fond memories of fighting against Qianyu, most notably beating her in the bronze medal match of the 2019 Asian Championships.
However, the big question for Vinesh will be the challenge from Mukaida, whom she won't face till the final. Like Bajrang's Otuguro, Mukaida has been the formidable opponent Vinesh had wanted to beat for a long time. The 23-year-old has been an Achilles heel for Phogat for a long time. In the three encounters, Mukaida won all the bouts against Vinesh and would be the toughest nut to crack in the games as well.