When London Olymics Silver medallist Sushil Kumar takes to the mud arena at a local wrestling competition in Jhajjar, Haryana, he fails to draw the crowd’s adulation. The roars from the crowd atop tractors and salutary nods from hookah smoking elders are reserved for the 22- year-old Rohit Patel, for his exceptional pin of an opponent, that sealed him a victory and a place in the quarter-finals.
As Kumar takes his seat in the VIP enclave, Patel, who hails from Indore, heads back to his car to take a one-hour break before the next fight. Patel a two time national gold-medallist, is the darling of the mud-wrestling circuit has been decorated with the Bharat Kumar, the Bharat Kesari (best heavyweight wrestler), and the Rustom-e-Hind (wrestling champion of India) — the highest titles a wrestler could aspire for in India. Sushil meanwhile has achieved what Patel and hundreds of wrestlers across India are aiming for — a shot at Olympic glory.
“In mud-wrestling, the aim is to pin down the opponent. I can defeat any international wrestler on mud,” says Patel as he cools off in his car. An hour later, Patel loses in the semi-finals to an opponent who eventually wins the Jhajjar tournament, which has a cash prize of Rs 2 lakh and a silver mace as trophy. “The competition here is even tougher than the nationals. But this is a big dangal (tournament) with a huge cash prize. The next dangal in Haryana has a Rs 3.5 lakh prize. I’ll be aiming for that one,” says Patel as he walks off defeated, yet motivated with a cash prize of Rs 31,000 for finishing fourth in the tournament.
Before the event winds up, an announcement is made calling for all wrestlers and coaches across the country to assemble at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi on 23 March. These men would walk to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to urge the government of India to intervene in a crisis that has gripped international wrestling. “It is important to keep our wrestlers motivated until wrestling is brought back to the Olympic Games. After Sushil Kumar and Yogendra Dutt made India proud at the Olympics, every wrestler now dreams of an Olympic medal. Our wrestlers are motivated enough to win in any format and we will not allow this talent to go waste because of bureaucratic apathy,” says Captain Satbir Gulia, organiser of the Jhajjar dangal.
International wrestling suffered a major setback this year after the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) was caught napping. In February, wrestling was dropped as a sport from the Olympics after FILA representatives failed to attend an International Olympics Committee (IOC) meeting in Geneva. However, there is optimism that sustained pressure would lead to a reversal of the IOC’s decision in May when the next round of discussions on potential sporting disciplines are scheduled.
Even though India as a nation can no longer participate in the Olympics because of the Indian Olympic Association’s suspension over electoral irregularities, wrestlers in India do not mind contesting under the Olympic flag and taking on the world’s best for a chance to bite into six gram of Olympic gold.
“I inspire my students by constantly reminding them of what people like Kumar and Dutt have achieved. It takes a lot of hard work to train as a wrestler and for every single one of my boys, Olympics is the ultimate platform to shine. There is nothing more demotivating than taking away a dream. But for wrestlers, overcoming such temporary disappointments is not a hard task,” says Ashok Garg, a wrestling coach and former national wrestler who represented India at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. That is where tournaments like the one in Jhajjar are helping wrestlers retain their confidence and prepare to make their respective akharas and gurus proud.
The fact that cash prizes in some dangals are at par with a man of the match award in corporate sponsored events like the Indian Premier League, speaks volumes about the kind of popular support these tournaments enjoy. The organising budgets of local dangals often go up to Rs 30 lakh; the one in Jhajjar though cost half that money.
Most of the money comes from local businessmen, politicians and former wrestlers. All contributors are openly feted with turbans and the contributions are announced on loudspeakers through the tournament. Even if a wrestler loses a bout, elders who liked the way he fought give him money. Some tournaments like the one in Jhajjar, give money to even the losing wrestlers. In addition, the audience often bet amongst themselves and when someone makes money off a wrestler he ensures the player is given a token of appreciation in the form of money.
The sport also enjoys abundant political patronage. Like in other states such as UP and Maharashtra, dangals in Haryana are also patronised by politicians. The names of the political patrons are repeatedly announced at dangals to generate goodwill among the people who come from nearby villages to watch these fights.
With the 2014 elections on the horizon, there is a renewed attempt at raising the stakes at these dangals in terms of cash prizes and organisational grandeur. Often, as the election season approaches, politicians enlist many of these wrestlers as polling agents or for canvassing voters. Many wrestlers who retire from the national level are recruited as personal security officers of Haryana’s politicians.
The performance of Indian wrestlers in 2012 London Olympics has changed the priorities and motivational benchmarks of budding wrestlers. Twenty-year-old Sunil Kumar started wrestling at the age of 15. Coming from a family of wrestlers, it was an obvious choice. But after seeing Sushil Kumar and Yogendra Dutt’s performance last year, Sunil’s mind changed. “I have a photo of Sushil on my wall. I practise for six hours a day and often look up to their feats and dream that I will achieve that someday,” says Sunil as he dusts off the mud and sweat after his fight.
There is growing displeasure among akharas in Haryana and across India about the IOC’s ‘illogical’ decision to dismiss wrestling as a sport from the list of Olympics sports. In Haryana, the Congress has been quick to gauge the mood and project itself as the saviour of the traditional sport. “I have spoken to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Jitendra Singh,” says Deepender Singh Hooda, Congress MP and chief guest at the Jhajjar dangal. “Former sports minister Ajay Maken has written to his counterparts in 70 countries which participate in wrestling and I am sure that with sustained efforts , the IOA will withdraw its decision.”
Indian mud wrestlers meanwhile are making the most of the dangal season in Haryana. But money is not something that inspires them anymore. It is only an Olympic medal and crowd adulation that will satisfy these mud warriors.