Will quit if Vinesh Phogat doesn't win a medal at Tokyo Olympics: Coach Mahabir Prasad
India's top wrestling coaches Mahabir Prasad, Kripa Shankar and Manoj Kumar predicting a medal haul of two to four medals in Tokyo Olympics.
There was a time when Indian wrestlers used to go to the Olympics to participate. The first medal came in freestyle wrestling in Olympics was in 1952 when the great Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav from Maharashtra won a bronze medal in Helsinki in 1952. It took 56 years for India to win another medal in the prestigious event in 2008 in Beijing when Sushil Kumar clinched a bronze medal.
Four years later we saw India doubling that mark and winning two medals in which one bronze medal was won by Yogeshwar Dutt in 60 Kg men's freestyle weight category and one silver won by Sushil Kumar in 66 Kg men's freestyle weight category, which is India's best-ever performance till date.
Sushil Kumar's medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a paradigm shift in Indian wrestling. A medal which gave belief to the Indians that they are not going to Olympics only to participate but to win medals too. In 2016 in the Rio Olympics Sakshi Malik became the first female wrestler to bag an Olympic medal showing that even Indian girls are not too far behind.
Since 2008, India have never returned empty-handed in wrestling from the Olympics and this time the expectations from the Indian wrestlers are sky-high. All the wrestling experts and pundits like coaches are predicting a medal haul of two to four in Tokyo Olympics.
"Indian wrestlers will win a minimum of two medals and if we win four then it will be excellent. Four medals are possible," said Dronacharya awardee coach Mahabir Prasad in an exclusive chat with The Bridge.
"I am going to talk crystal clear and I believe Indian wrestlers can bag at least three to four medals in the Tokyo Olympics," told India's Dhyan Chand awardee coach Manoj Kumar.
"This time the performance of Indian wrestlers will be better than previous Olympics." said wrestling coach Kripashankar.
The top two names in the Indian wrestling contingent are Vinesh Phogat (53 Kg) and Bajrang Punia (65 Kg). Both the wrestlers with their consistent medal-winning performances in tournaments like Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, World Championship, Asian Championship have raised the expectation of the country but if you ask the experts like wrestling coaches then they are backing Ravi Dahiya, who is representing India in men's 57 Kg weight category as their strong favourite and keeping him on par with Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia.
"Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia both are favourites among men wrestlers. He is the first Indian wrestler to win three medals in World Championships. So, Bajrang is a contender for a gold medal and he has always been in the World ranking one or two. So, he is among the top two-three wrestlers in the world for four to five years now."
"Unless it is a bad day like it was for Indian shooters in the Rio Olympics. More than Bajrang's medal Ravi Dahiya is also a strong contender for a medal. I have the biggest expectations from Ravi Dahiya. If he performs well on the Olympic mat then Ravi can win a gold medal. So, if I look at the gold medal then Ravi Dahiya has the best chance." believes Dronacharya awardee coach Mahabir Prasad.
"Ravi Dahiya is one guy I feel has the best chance of winning a medal, second is Vinesh Phogat and then Bajrang Punia. Deepak Punia who has come from junior level to senior level and won a silver medal in the world championship." feels coach Manoj Kumar.
"If Ravi Dahiya reduces his weight properly then he can be a hidden performer," said Commonwealth medallist Kripa Shankar.
Among men if it is Ravi Dahiya who is expected to win a medal after Bajrang Punia then in the women's category it is Anshu Malik (57 Kg) and Seema Bisla (50 Kg) while Sonam Malik (62 Kg) is not carrying too much of an expectation because she was suffering from injury and unfortunately was forced to missed out on practice and training overseas.
"Anshu Malik and Seema Bisla are also very close to win a medal. If they fight properly then anyone amongst them can win a medal. Sonam has just recovered from injury. So, her position is a little doubtful. She got injured after qualifying for the Olympics and after that she couldn't train abroad. So, now she has started to train."
"Therefore, how much she will be able to pick up and perform is difficult to predict. But she is also a medal contender. Anshu and Sonam are teenage wrestlers and if they go all out then they can win any medal. All the seven wrestlers are contenders for a medal and they are hungry to perform." said wrestling coach Mahabir Prasad.
"Anshu Malik is India's best chance of winning a medal in the women's category after Vinesh Phogat. After that the medal hopefuls are Seema Bisla and Sonam Malik." said CWG medallist Kripa Shankar.
The experts are rating all the seven wrestlers as medal prospects in Tokyo but Vinesh Phogat is considered as a sure-shot medal in 53 Kg women's freestyle weight category for India.
"If Vinesh Phogat doesn't win an Olympic medal then I will stop talking about wrestling. Vinesh Phogat's medal is a certainty and if Vinesh doesn't win a medal then I don't know anything about wrestling. I am sure she will reach the final and will face Japanese wrestler in the final and if she beats her then we will win gold but silver is a guarantee." Dronacharya awardee Mahabir Prasad told The Bridge in an exclusive conversation.
"Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya all of them are medal contenders. Vinesh is the number one wrestler in the world ranking and if you look at their past three month performances then they have beaten all the world level wrestlers. Ravi Dahiya went on to beat all the top wrestlers to qualify for the Olympics." said Dhyan Chand awardee coach Manoj Kumar.
Wrestler Bajrang Punia will be representing India in the 65 Kg freestyle weight category and he has been a highly consistent performer in that weight category by winning a silver and bronze medal in world championship as well as gold in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Asian Championship.
But in Olympics, the competition is even tougher as this weight category is the toughest. Therefore, a lot depends on the draw he gets in Tokyo if has to add an Olympics medal in his illustrious tally for medals.
"I have a small doubt in the 65 Kg weight category where Bajrang Punia is fighting because it is the toughest bout. In this weight category, there are two-three very good wrestlers and all of them have equal capability. If any wrestler faces two tough bouts on trot then he can lose his next bout easily to the third opponent of equal calibre."
"So, for example, if a Japanese wrestler faces a Russian and next faces an Azerbaijan wrestler and then he faces Bajrang then Bajrang will be able to beat them easily. If Bajrang faces a tough opponent then it could be vice-versa."
"Therefore, this applies to every wrestler Bajrang or anyone. If you get relatively easy two bouts in the beginning then your medal is assured and if you get two tough ones in the beginning then recovery becomes very tough for the next bout." opined Mahabir Prasad.
"Bajrang is already a no.2 wrestler so he will certainly not fight world no.1 wrestler in the beginning. He is going to face him in the final only if he reaches," said Manoj Kumar.
A knee injury to Bajrang Punia ahead of the Tokyo Olympics had come as scary news to the entire country as the 27 year old wrestler is India's one of the biggest hope but luckily the multiple world championship medallist has recovered from injury and is back to practice.
"Bajrang Punia missing out on practice due to injury is not a big issue. For a wrestler of Bajrang's calibre the level at which he is fighting and training, he can get back to fitness within two weeks of training. Bajrang, Ravi and Vinesh haven't come back to India because they are all training abroad and want to win a medal for the country. Therefore, they will travel directly to Tokyo without coming back to India. All the seven wrestlers are going with the attitude that I can win and want to finish on the podium." said Mahabir Prasad.
"Bajrang has recovered from his injury and injuries are part and parcel of a wrestler's career. His injury was not a major one and it is not a big concern." said Manoj Kumar.
According to wrestling coach Mahabir Prasad the 65-66 Kg freestyle weight category is India's favourite as India has won medals in this category in 2008 and 2012 when Sushil Kumar bagged a bronze and a silver respectively. Therefore, the luck factor can once again play a major role.
"The 65 Kg or 66 Kg weight category is India's favourite be it 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2012 London Olympics and 2016 also if Yogeshwar Dutt would not have been injured then he would have certainly won a gold. Therefore, this weight category of Bajrang is India's favourite. If he gets a favourable draw then he can win gold also." said Mahabir Prasad.
With India winning a total of 5 medals in Olympics which includes one silver and four bronze the wait for an Olympic gold remains and in Tokyo all eyes will be on these seven wrestlers to end this drought.
"The colour of the medal will change in only one way and that is by winning a gold medal. If it is silver or bronze then it is not a change in colour." said wrestling coach Kripa Shankar.
The expectations from these seven grapplers are sky high for not only winning a medal but to win the first Olympic gold in wrestling. All of them have an opportunity to make history and the one who wins gold will be etched in the history books for a lifetime.