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Beyond Bajrang and Vinesh, could Ravi Dahiya and Deepak Punia be India's dark horses at the Olympics?

Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya have emerged as two promising faces in the Indian wrestling contingent going for Tokyo Olympics.

Indian wrestlers Ravi Dahiya and Deepak Punia qualify for semifinals

Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya


Md Imtiaz

Updated: 20 July 2021 4:06 AM GMT

A dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph -

India's story at the Olympic Games, with a history of over 100 years, has several enduring narratives of dark horses who succeded despite all odds and took the entire nation by surprise. Most recently, in the Rio 2016 Games, both of India's medals were won by individuals on whom India probably had not rested its hopes.
At 21, Sindhu showed the world that her era was about to start when she won the silver medal, While Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal with a bronze.

Indian wrestling stands at an interesting epoch right before the Tokyo Olympics. A total of seven wrestlers had qualified for the Games (earlier, it was eight before Sumit Malik was provisionally suspended for doping), out of which four Indians have earned seedings. Anyone who follows wrestling knows the mettle of the two biggest medal contenders for India at the Olympics. India's star powers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat are seeded second and top in their respective categories of men's and women's competition.
Beyond Bajrang and Vinesh, who have added numerous feathers to their caps, lies a list of able grapplers, whose potential and achievements mostly remain less-talked-about in the fraternity. Two such names include wrestler Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya.

Aged 22 and 23, respectively, Deepak and Ravi have shown their potential to grab an edge in the most revered competitions of world wrestling. From humble beginnings to becoming formidable forces, India has seen two world-class figures standing out among the pool of wrestling talent that was in preparation for the last four years on the mat to attain the hallowed Olympic quota.
Deepak Punia started followed the footstep of his grandfather and father and started wrestling in local akharas to earn some extra money. In 2015, Deepak was taken to the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi, where he could get formal training. This when his maturity and fearlessness were tested. He picked up the sport and made a remarkable entry into the international stage by winning the 2016 Cadet World Wrestling Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia. However, his true potential was unfurled in 2019 where he outwitted every other wrestler on his way to win the gold medal in Junior World Wrestling Championships - the first Indian wrestler in 18 years to attain the feat.
However, the trainee under two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar was hungry to take more under his stride. In the same year, he competed at the Senior World Wrestling Championships in Nur Sultan, Kazakstan. He faced a relatively easier draw in the 86kg competition and made his way into the final. A leg injury robbed of his chances to win the gold, and he had to settle for a silver. The 'Junior Wrestler of the year' return discontented, unable to fight World Champion Hassan Yazdani.

Deepak, who is seeded second in the 86kg category, has been prepping up for his Olympic dreams for a long time now. Amid the lockdown, he moved to an akhara in Narela to continue his training.
Though Deepak has been lucky to avoid strong contenders in his weight category in the past, he can pull off surprises in the Games. Based on his seeding - Deepak could face a tough challenge from the 2018 World Champion from the USA, David Taylor, Japan's Sosuke Takatani, and Russia's Artur Naifonov. If he could reach the semis, he could be facing San Marino's Myles Amine, who for Deepak is beatable. However, suppose he somehow manages to cross the semifinal huddle. In that case, the final showdown will be against his long-coveted opponent Yazdani, the gold medallist in Rio 2016 in 74kg gold, who is also regarded as the best Iranian freestyle wrestler ever produced. With permutations and combinations done, Deepak still looks a good contender on paper and has a chance to bring home a silver medal from the Tokyo Games.
Ravi Dahiya, who won the gold medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships 2021 in Almaty, Uzbekistan, is raring to go for the upcoming games in Tokyo. Ravi started wrestling at the age of 11, when he saw Sushil Kumar win the Olympic medal for the first time in 2008. Since then, he had dreamt of emulating the achievements of his idol. From the very beginning, he was under the wings of Satpal Singh, the coach who trained Sushil.

He has seen a steady rise throughout his career, which makes him a reckoning force in the 57kg category of the Tokyo Olympics. In 2015, Ravi broke into the international circuit when he won the silver medal at the Junior World Championships.
In 2017, he suffered a knee injury during Senior Nationals. He was selected to perform at the semifinals of the competition. Due to his injury, Ravi had no sponsors, and in the end, he was forced to fall back on his well-wishers to recuperate his injury. But soon, he bounced back and gave a remarkable comeback. The next year, he earned a silver medal at the U-23 World Championships, Bucharest in Romania

However, the biggest moment for the 23-year-old wrestler from Sonepat came in October 2019 when he won a bronze medal at the Senior World Championships and also, in the process, earned an Olympics quota in the men's 57kg freestyle category.
Ravi made a thumping return to international wrestling following the hiatus because of the lockdown and retained his Asian Championships title in 2021. The Tokyo-bound wrestler also secured a silver medal in Warsaw in the 61kg category at the Poland Open, the last Ranking Series event before the Tokyo Games.
In the 57kg category, Ravi has been seeded 4th. He is likely to meet top-seeded Serbian Stevan Micic in the semifinal if he doesn't crash out before reaching the stage. Micic, internationally, has claimed two bronze medals at the European Championships, a silver medal at the 2019 European Games, and a bronze medal at the 2018 Mediterranean Games.
Before the final, he will be avoiding Suleman Atli, who is one of the strongest contenders in his category. Neither will he be meeting Zavur Uguev, which is a bright spot for a medal chance.
As India set to send one of the strongest contingents of wrestling at the Olympics, both Ravi and Deepak have outside medal chances, which make them the dark horses going into the Games.
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