On the mat

Sushil Kumar’s arrest in murder case invites attention to underbelly of a sport that has thrown up inspirational stories.

In many rural India, and even some city pockets, wrestling is a way of life. Spartan men in loincloth, leading monkish lives, grapple on mud or mat. In villages, dangal stars often get called home to bless the ailing and children are goaded to apply the akhara sand on their foreheads. The emphatic acceptance of “Rustam-E-Hind” Dara Singh as the silver screen Hanuman, the mythical figure who epitomised devotion and dedication, confirmed the popular reverence for the pehalwans. At the same time, some wrestlers have also worked as heavies for the politicians, ganglords and night club owners — but they were seen as the akhara rejects, the bad apples that fell off the assembly line. That may have changed now — after Sushil Kumar, India’s greatest-ever wrestler and the country’s most-decorated Olympian, was named as a murder accused and paraded in public view. The spotlight is now searching out the grey areas of Indian wrestling.

Wrestling always had a knack for throwing up feel-good stories. Away from the city lights, parents with modest means would send their pre-teen sons and daughters to akharas and academies, hoping wrestling would help them climb the social ladder. Medals around the necks of battered and bruised wrestlers were fitting final frames of tales full of heart-breaking grit and sacrifice. The wrestling tradition of seniors passing tactical knowledge to juniors, and they in return putting themselves in their service, also glorified the akhadas as learning institutions. Bollywood fictionalised the inspirational story of the Phogat sisters to make a box-office killing. It is said to have encouraged more girls to take up the sport as wrestling was to become the only sport to win at least one medal at the last three Olympics. But the poster boy, who won two of them — Sushil won a bronze in Beijing 2008 and a silver in London 2012 — has now invited attention to the sport’s underbelly.

The signs were there. Akhara rivalries and bad blood between top wrestlers had triggered brawls at trials. A prevalent star culture stifled the growth of the second rung in wrestling. The fabled guru-shishya tradition had seen the unhealthy mushrooming of gangs that operated even beyond the akhara premises. Those with serious criminal charges had easy access to the training grounds and tournament venues. It was hard to keep them away since those governing the sport too weren’t squeaky clean. Sushil’s arrest has lifted the mask and shattered some myths. The wrestling arena is no sacred space and Olympic medals can be no character certificates.

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