Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.
It was a historical haul for India at Tokyo Olympics 2020 with seven medals – 1 gold, 2 silver, and 4 bronze. Accolades have flooded the Olympians but the question to ponder is whether it arrived at the right time or not. Their strenuous journey is not just limited to an Olympic win, it goes way beyond. A journey of hard work and perseverance, triumphing over every obstacle that crossed their path to reach the podium of the Olympics.
It’s interesting to note that amongst Indian Olympians, the majority are from tier 2, tier 3, or remote cities — hailing from places that do not even have a proper training playground. Gold Medalist Neeraj Chopra had to travel 15 km from home to access a stadium. Meanwhile, Silver Medalist Mirabai Chanu took lifts in loading rice trucks to reach her training ground 25 km away. Even amidst a lack of facilities and proper amenities, it was their strong passion that reaped historical milestones.
Unfortunately, sports still remain supplementary to academics in India. We have parents chasing their kids towards attaining 90 percent on exams while brushing aside their sports dreams, claiming the future to be dicey. Playing a sport is encouraged as just a hobby and people hesitate in pursuing it as their dream. Not just the mindset, even the number of sports schools and well-equipped training centers are only a handful.
In fact, it’s the like-minded sports enthusiasts and various collectives that support and encourage their counterparts in their sports journey. Speaking to Tell-A-Story, Jungle Crows Foundation sheds light on the hurdles faced by athletes in vulnerable living conditions. Located in the northern part of Kolkata, this collective features various athletics programs and facilitates scholarships and employment opportunities for budding sports stars.
This video story reveals the intriguing narrative of this amazing sports collective while uncovering the unusual Olympic spirit of Indian athletes.
Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.
Wrestling competitions at the Olympics have begun, and India is yet to medal. India has a seven-member contingent, which includes two women. Many may recall that Sakshi Malik won a bronze medal in 2016 in Reno. (Incidentally, she did not make the team for Tokyo). Also, in 2012 in London, India won two medals (a rarity!) in the men’s division: a silver and a bronze. So, there is good reason for keeping our eyes on wrestling from India’s Olympic perspective.
Many of you may recall my diatribes in my earlier article where I was crying hoarsely to ‘prove’ that Indians’ lack of success in sports (other than cricket) is primarily due to lack of talent and not due to shortage of training and associated facilities and adequate financial rewards. Well, perhaps I am now backtracking somewhat from my stubborn stand earlier, due to some new information and developments. I am talking about wrestling.
India had fourth-place finishes on seven occasions! This woke me up – how come I was not aware of it?
I have compiled the table below which includes all the medalists, and fourth, fifth and sixth place finishers in Olympic wrestling, both men and women:
The table above is surely impressive. No other Olympic sport can boast of a similar level of performance on the part of Indians (except perhaps Field Hockey, if the recent successes mature into something more substantive).
Add to that the 59 medals in the Asian Games (11 gold, 14 silver, and 34 bronze) from 1954 to 2018 including 5 medals (2 gold, and 1 bronze) in 2018. In addition, India won 11 medals in the 2018 Commonwealth Games (5 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze). The better performances in the Commonwealth Games compared to the Asian Games are clearly reflective of the presence of wrestling powerhouses Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Japan in the Asiads. All this has me fully convinced that there is talent in India in wrestling, a sport that has been included in all the modern Olympics and even in the Ancient Olympics in Greece.
A Brief History of Wrestling in India
Wrestling (pehlwani or kushti) has after all been a part of our heritage from the days of yore. The epic Mahabharata is replete with the exploits of Bhima, the second Pandava who demolishes numerous kings and demons with his superhuman strength. I am tempted to put Bhima as the world’s first accomplished wrestler.
The malla-yuddha in Ramayana speaks of the presence of wrestling in India in antiquity. There are also allusions to Krishna and his brother Balaram being legendary wrestlers. In fact, there is a Purana dated in the thirteenth century called Malla Purana. It describes the various wrestling techniques. Interestingly, the techniques are named after the legendary wrestlers Jarasandha, Hanuman and Jambuvan, and of course Bhima.
However, the prevailing form of wrestling in India probably evolved during the Mughal rule by combining the native malla-yuddha (which incorporates grappling, joint-breaking, punching, biting, choking and pressure point striking) with influences from Persian sources. A particular feature that distinguished pehlwani from the earlier malla-yuddha was that strikes and kicks during a match were not allowed. Wrestling (of the pehlwani variety) became a very popular sport in the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth century, particularly in Punjab and North India. Many zamindars and maharajas like the Maharaja of Patiala, avidly patronized the sport and had a stable of fighters.
Legendary fighters like Karim Bux, Gulam, Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, and The Great Gama caught the imagination of the sporting public of the day. The Great Gama (1878-1960), also known as the Gama Pehalwan, whose real name was Ghulam Mohammed Butt, was undoubtedly the greatest Indian wrestler of his time, perhaps of all time. In 2015, The Great Gama was inducted posthumously in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (PWHF) as a wrestler of the Pioneer Era.
Wrestling in various forms emerged as a spectator sport in various parts of India. One popular form to emerge, particularly in Punjab, Haryana, and western UP was the Dangal. It was showcased by a popular blockbuster by the same name. The film presented the story of a Phogat family, where a man from Haryana trained his six daughters and nieces, all of whom became successful wrestlers with distinguished successes in the Asian Games and the Olympics. In our generation had all grown up with the name of Dara Singh and his match with a foreign wrestler named King Kong.
And finally talking about our tradition of wrestling, I cannot refrain from remembering the big fat men, often with huge mustaches, gleefully engaged trying to pin down each other in akhadas (wrestling mats) in the banks of the Ganges. It is somewhat of a mystery to me as to why these dedicated and talented practitioners of the sport did not try their hand at the Olympics. Maybe it was because typical pehlwani, as practiced in India, does not translate easily to the more stringent rules of Olympic wrestling.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].
When a dynamic teenage pistol shooter is targeting not one but multiple Golds at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020, the entire nation has to be rooting for her. 19-year-old Manu Bhaker will be seen fighting it out in the 10 meter, 25 meter air-pistol, and mixed-team shooting events at the Japanese capital after many Covid-hit hurdles. Manu took out time from her grueling practice and meditation routine in Croatia, just before heading to Tokyo, to give an exclusive interview to India Currents.
Hailing from the small village of Goria (population of 4,590 as per the last Census, 2011) in Jhajjar district of Haryana, Manu first picked the pistol at her school’s shooting range only 5 years ago. Before that, by the age of 14, Manu had already played, excelled, and voluntarily dropped out of about a dozen other games.
“I played almost all games which were available at Universal School Goria. And mostly left (these) games after winning medals at national and state level,” Manu shares.
Which games are these?
“Boxing, skating, marathon, kabaddi, lawn tennis, table tennis, swimming, Tang-Ta (a sword and spear martial art from Manipur), karate, and shooting. In Tang-Ta and karate I have national medals,” elaborates Manu.
“Shooting was also a game at Universal School and many students played it” which is how Manu had her first tryst with the pistol. Excelling at other games “did not help me in any way in preparing me for shooting.” So why did she stick to this game for so long, compared to all others?
“Shooting is a transparent game with a transparent system. It’s quick and gives instant results too. Alongside these factors, early results in my career of this sport, with very little work compared to other contact sports, made me opt for this sport. I enjoy sports, but I love shooting the most,” says Manu firmly.
“Olympic is a dream for every athlete and it is mine as well. It feels great to represent India,” Manu says about her first-ever appearance at Olympics.
Bhaker has become the sportsperson she has while growing up in Goria and is deeply attached to her home and school. “My best childhood memories are of the School stage show where I performed the role of Goddess Saraswati. I was 4 years old and everyone praised me. Girls from standard 11/12 were bowing towards me and I couldn’t control my laughter,” shares Manu fondly.
The presence of a healthy sports culture and the ready availability of coaches at the school played a vital role in Manu’s marvelous career path. “Goria is a beautiful village and our school on its outskirts is even more beautiful,” explains Manu.
At the recently released NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goal India Index 2020-21, prepared in association with United Nations India, Haryana scored poorly on gender equality, among other things. Also, it is well known, that according to Census 2011, Haryana has the worst gender disparity in the country at 834 girls per 1000 boys.
Given the situation, many would think life in Goria would have been challenging, but Manu quashes any such thoughts. “My life has always been a cakewalk due to a supportive family. My parents are absolutely amazing and always removed possible obstacles. Even the people in my village are great and support girls and boys equally,” shares Manu. “I have never heard or saw anything about inequality in my village and don’t know why some people always try to make this a topic of discussion. Actually, reservations, unemployment, and population control should be topics of concern,” she adds further.
Manu bagged several Gold medals at the 2017 National Games and a silver at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships almost within a year of picking up shooting. She’s been playing in both 10m and 25m events for five years, but coincidentally, has won all of her 14 international Golds in the 10m category only, playing either individually or in a team event. Yet, surprisingly, it is the 25m game that is closer to her heart.
“I love the 25m sports pistol more. I enjoy the sound and passion. Also, it’s quick,” says Manu without any qualms. While focus and mental balance are imperative in this sport, a match at an international level has to evoke a myriad of emotions for any athlete. Does Manu feel nervous, or is she strategizing on the field with the opponent beside her?
“I don’t plan. I don’t watch anyone’s game. I simply listen to music and keep myself calm. I listen to all kinds of music, including Haryanvi and Punjabi,” she shares. Her day starts early and she practices the super-powerful Suryanamaskar for an hour daily, without a miss. “I follow a standard routine starting yoga. And I haven’t changed this routine since I started shooting; nothing special for big events as every tournament is special for me.”
Studies haven’t taken a backseat for her either. “It is very very important for me to excel at and complete my studies too. I do study for 1-2 hours daily even at this time,” says Manu.
India’s best promise at Tokyo, this youngster is satisfied with the international standard ranges and infrastructure of her land. “I do continue to practice at my school range or in my house range for the 10m, but I have to travel 145km to Delhi for 25m pistol sports. Surprisingly, there is not a single 25m sports pistol range in our state, Haryana,” says Manu.
Being good with a sword, spear, the pistol, and hand-to-hand combat arts of boxing and karate too, does she feel she has the spirit of a warrior? Does she see herself as a part of the army like her grandfather?
“I am in all these things. But I will opt for the civil services,” says Manu with a sense of finality.
Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India, who loves taking care of her children and plants.
This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. Find part 1 here!
The previous article illustrates that of the many individuals who have represented India in the Olympics, relatively few were competitive. This is by all accounts, rather disappointing, considering India’s huge population and its exposure and intimate association with the Olympics for over 100 years.
The above frustration was relayed by so many of us as we watched the quadrennial spectacular in Rio de Janeiro with great interest. It was given added fillip when the inimitable Dipa Karmakar (the Produnova vault was on everyone’s lips!) just missed medaling as we all watched. The frustration was assuaged only slightly near the end of the Games with the bronze for Sakshi Malik in women’s wrestling and later by the silver by PV Sindhu in badminton. But the sentiment lives on. It may further be noted that Pakistan has won only 10 medals so far (since 1952), eight of them Field Hockey. And Bangladesh has so far (since 1972) won none – the most populous country in the world without an Olympic medal.
One wonders about this pervasive shortcoming for the entire subcontinent. The oft-cited reason is the lack of sufficient facilities, training, and economic incentives. For the most part, I do not fully agree. I am thoroughly convinced that to be an Olympic medalist you most of all need to have superior “inherent natural ability” (talent). I submit that without superior talent, any amount of training, facilities, or opportunities will not an Olympic champion make. And in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there apparently is a severe dearth (not total absence) of talent needed to succeed in the sports currently competed in the Olympics. And that unfortunately does not include cricket.
Of the children of Indian origin who grew up in the US, genuine success in sports is few and far between – in sharp contrast to their glaring successes in Spelling Bees, Math Olympiads, and Chess. This is in spite of them being afforded the same opportunities as all others. The common reason put forward is that they predominantly have a white-collar background.
However, the situation is not much different in the UK, which has a much larger proportion of a working-class population from the Indian subcontinent. But the only one coming close is Bengali-Kolkata mix, Neil Taylor, who represented Wales in Euro 2016. While on soccer, I contend that if we had talent in the game, we would have had a presence in the English and European leagues like so many from Africa. We have been well exposed to the game for well over a hundred years. However, our best, Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and Masood Fakhri of Pakistan earlier could not establish themselves in the English league. Mention may be made of war-torn Iraq, whose soccer team not only qualified for the Olympics but drew all its three group matches, including with Brazil, the ultimate gold medalist.
The source of talent in sports is not easily defined in specific terms. Different skill sets are required for different sports, and thus, different physical attributes. For some sports it is easy to identify – you have to be tall for basketball and well-built for American football. But for other sports, it is not readily apparent. There is more to physical attributes than height and weight. They involve myriad characteristics like upper body strength, speed of hand and foot, reaction times, lung capacity, wrist strength, hand-eye coordination, length of arms, and size of palms. Also, the ability to withstand pain and fatigue may be part of talent, though that might not strictly qualify as a physical attribute. Take a look at Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming legend. He has been described as having a freakish physique with a large wingspan, high lung capacity, and flipper feet.
The racial/ethnic element in Olympics sports success clearly jumps out at me in no uncertain terms.
The superior success of black athletes from the US, the Caribbeans, Canada, or England in the speed events of track and field — the sprints, horizontal jumps, the hurdles — does not escape anyone. They are known to have a common West African ancestry for the most part. Significantly, countries in West Africa like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, who have similar ancestry, have also produced some world-class sprinters and long jumpers. By contrast, the success of the same people in the longer distances, the throws, the high jump, and pole vault are a mere shadow of their success in the speed events.
Ethiopians and Kenyans from East Africa surely belong to a different stock with their primacy in the middle and longer distances (they cannot run distances shorter than 800 meters it seems!). Incidentally, other small countries in the region like Somalia, Djibouti, and Burundi have also been competitive in these distances in the Olympics.
It also appears that the Mongolian races stand out for their extremely fast hand-foot combinations. They are so overwhelming in low-weight boxing, badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. I have to note that many successful boxers are from India (Mary Kom is the best of them!) and from the impoverished northeast, where the Mongolian racial characteristics are so prevalent. It is hard to think there are better training and facilities there than in the rest of India. There seems to be some special talent in weightlifting and wrestling in Turkey, Iran, and contiguous countries like Azerbijan and Kazakastan. Finally, there is the example of the little island of Fiji with a population of less than a million winning a gold medal in rugby in 2016. Thirty-eight percent of the Fijian population is of Indian origin — there was not a single Indian on the Fijian team –all were what they call native Fijians (of Melanesian and some Polynesian origin).
Many of my above observations may not be tenable as increased globalization takes hold and new technological advances appear on the scene. Changed political and economic situations may also dictate newer realities. Predictably, there will be increased exposure to different sports for different segments of the population along with better training. I am reminded that before the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the unforgettable victory of Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia in the marathon, and the exploits of Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and others from 1964. Kenya and Ethiopia, which so overwhelmingly dominate the middle and long distances of track and field, were absent from our sports consciousness.
Similar must have been in baseball before Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major league in 1947, which opened up the huge talent pool for the racial diversity in baseball. Similarly, there was the arrival of China into the Olympic fold in 1984 and before that in the Asian Games in 1974. It was a quantum shift in the Olympic scene. Similarly, it is possible that new technology and changing situations, such as the advent of artificial surfaces unsuited to our style of play, exodus of Anglo-Indians from India, and more nations taking up the game seriously, all may have resulted in the loss of the primacy in Field Hockey for India and Pakistan.
I seriously wonder if such changed situations discussed above will usher in much hope for increased Olympic success for India. After all, India has had reasonably long exposures to the outside world in all the major Olympic sports like soccer, field hockey, track and field, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing, and often had decent opportunities to show their mettle. We have, sometimes, competed creditably in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, but repeatedly came up short in the larger arena of the Olympics. This, I would attribute largely to a lack of sufficient talent.
To many, insufficient or inadequate training, facilities, and economic incentives are the prime causes for India’s ‘abject failure’ in the Olympics over the years. The issue needs to be examined more closely, beyond this blanket statement. In 2014, India won 57 medals (11 gold) in the Asian Games and 55 medals (14 gold) in the Commonwealth Games. In 2018, India won 70 medals (16 gold) in the Asian Games and 66 medals (20gold) in the Commonwealth Games. The medals tell me there is a reasonable amount of training and infrastructure out there and that our talent level is good enough to succeed in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, but insufficient for Olympic medals.
The case of Dipa Karmakar is instructive. For one hailing from Tripura, a remote corner of the country, she could still avail herself of adequate gymnastic facilities and a capable coach in Mr. Nandi. Dipa went thru the ranks from junior to senior (no lone wolf!), reflecting a reasonable infrastructure behind her, however inept. Mr. Nandi has hailed the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for its help.
Sakshi Malik’s experience in her Haryana village with all its backwardness and prejudices did not stop her from acquiring a competent coach from Karnataka, trained by SAI. Along with the SAI, which has its presence in every state, there are sports institutes in many parts of the country, such as in Patiala and Gwalior, turning out players and coaches. There is the admirable facility for badminton run by the former All England Champion, PV Gopichand, which has turned out Olympic medalists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu among others.
So, we do have our coaches and our facilities, however insufficient and inept. We have also to appreciate that for a vast and poor country like India, our utilization of our limited resources for sports have to be balanced against bigger priorities such as infrastructure development, industrialization, alleviation of poverty, justice and crime prevention, defense of the country, education, good governance. All these surely cannot be compromised for mere Olympic medals.
I am curious how our training and financial incentives compare with other similar developing countries on a per-capita basis, something not easy to put one’s hands-on. Instead, I chose three countries at random: Brazil, Thailand, and Nigeria in three continents to find out their Olympic medal hauls.
Brazil had won 24 gold, 31 silver, and 57 bronze.
Thailand had won 9 gold, 7 silver, and 13 bronze.
Nigeria had won 3 gold, 8 silver, and 12 bronze (including a gold and a silver in soccer and a gold in Men’s 4×400 meters relay).
These countries are by no means economic powerhouses. It is therefore very unlikely that their sportsmen would have better facilities and economic prospects than in India to spur the pursuit of their sporting careers.
The Olympics have just begun in Tokyo. I, an Olympic fanatic am already in front of the TV watching the grand extravaganza, albeit in front of empty stadiums. Success or failure of Indians will only flash fleetingly in my mind. I will root for whoever seems hopeful and can bring us some medals. They have been so few and far between!
In the meantime, I keep on hoping like many of us for cricket to be included in the Olympics in the future. We would definitely be contenders for the gold.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].
He wrestles with all his might and communicates in immaculate Hindi. 26-year-old freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia is among the foremost Indian stars for the upcoming 2021 Summer Olympics.
On March 8, 2021, after fighting his first big match in Rome since the pandemic struck, he’s re-secured the 65-kg weight category number 1 spot in the world. Doing the unthinkable, he defeated his Mongolian opponent in a nail-biting last 30 seconds of the match to clinch the Gold! High on positivity about repeating the same at the upcoming Olympics, he had been training in Michigan.
Awarded with some of the country’s highest honors since 2015, including Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, and Arjuna Award, Punia started wrestling at age of 7 years by playing in the mud in his village in rural India; he hailed from a financially poor but deeply encouraging family.
Punia took out time from his challenging routine to speak to India Currents about his devotion to discipline, training during the coronavirus lockdown, and why he has released statements urging the Indian government to resolve the 2020 farmers protest.
IC: The announcement of nationwide lockdown in India and the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics came within hours of each other on March 24. What were your first thoughts?
BP: First thoughts were definitely saddening – we were just three months away from the Olympics and preparing hard for it. But on second thought, we didn’t know such a virus would arrive and everything around the globe would stop. Lockdown gave me more time to work on my performance. Life is important, the Olympics can come again.
IC: Tell us about your daily routine.
BP: The most essential quality for a good athlete is discipline. Without discipline, you are a zero. And the next important thing is – diet. Maintaining these is crucial. If we are at a training center – like now – we have to wake up at 4-4.30 am. I wake up, bhagwan ka naam leta hoon (pray), get fresh, and have bananas or an apple before heading out. We have to be on the mat for the first match by 5 am irrespective of the season.
During training, we take munakka (currant) and supplements. We drink badam (almond) being made right there in kundi sota (a traditional Indian grinding instrument set). It’s strengthening and body cooling. These are specific to Indian wrestlers. After training for 2-3 hours, go back, take lunch, shower, have milk, and sleep. The same routine is repeated in the evening. I sleep by 10 pm. About 9 hours of sleep is essential. If I’m at a local training camp (when at home), the routine is a little delayed, but the same.
IC: How was lockdown spent?
BP: The first month was disturbing. As players, we had never stayed at home before. Now, we had to appeal to people to stay indoors and set an example too. But then I started making arrangements so that my training doesn’t suffer. I took a room for rent near our house in Sonipat and got my partner Jitendra to practice with me. I requested our community in my village Khudan in Jhajjar district, Haryana, for the wrestling mat – which they immediately sent me and we set it in the room. I bought and set up gym equipment worth Rs6-7 lakh ($8,154-$9,153); my physiotherapist Manish Konwar Chetri was with me. And the training started!
IC: When you are playing in the ring, do you feel connected with the audience and hear them?
BP: No. When I am on the mat, I think nothing. My full concentration is on kushti. At world-level matches, all players are good. If at all I hear someone shouting/cheering, I think it’s for me; it cannot be for the opponent!
IC: What is your favorite food?
BP: Churma (a traditional sweet made with wheat and ghee) made by my mother is my favorite food but I cannot eat it often due to a restricted diet. I relish it after returning home from tournaments.
IC: Which is your favorite wrestling match?
BP: It was at the 2013 World Championship. This was my best ever and one of the first senior matches. I won a medal (bronze). Whenever I watch that bout, I think I have to do more. At that time, India had fewer medals in the world championship. If I can win this at the age of 18, I can definitely win it at the Olympics.
IC: What facilities at your American training center for the Olympics would you want your Indian facility can accommodate?
BP: Indian centers have it all too in my opinion. But here at this center (Cliff Kleen Wrestling Club, Michigan), everything is under one roof – a gym beside the mat, basketball, football, steam, sauna, massage…everything. It helps.
IC: You have released messages on social media for the government to resolve the largest ever ongoing farmers’ protest in India. What is your opinion on it?
BP: If the farmers are not happy with something, why try to force it on them? If the government believes it is beneficial to them, then sit with them and explain it. Why would farmers not understand? I come from a farmers’ family and thus I understand. If you go to my home, you will see my parents work in the fields. There isn’t a single family member in the job sector. Only I am an exception, a sportsman. Farmers won’t be on the road if there is a benefit in the three farm acts.
Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist from Kolkata, India.