Bajrang Punia has decided to split ways with his coach of three years, Shako Bentinidis, under whom he won the Asian Games gold, and multiple medals at global meets, including bronze at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year. In what can be looked at as an overhaul of the coaching staff involved in training elite wrestlers, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is also planning to remove Kamal Malikov, Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya’s personal coach. The idea, federation officials say, is to get fresh perspectives in place for the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle.
Bentinidis’ exit is understandable, and logical too, considering the fact that the Georgian’s partnership with Punia seemed to have hit a dead end. The wrester’s technical and tactical evolution looked dated in his outings up until Tokyo, while his traditional weakness, leg defense, still remains a chink which opponents expose every now and then. Not to mention the injury Punia sustained in Russia just ahead of the Olympics, following a tournament exposure regimen planned by Bentinidis. That apart, their partnership was, of course, productive, and it saw Punia reign as the top ranked wrestler in the world in the 65kg freestyle division.
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But, as Punia himself puts it, the partnership had to end so that he could build with purpose for Paris, toward that gold he badly wants. A gold which many, including him, feels he would have won in Tokyo had he not been injured. That part -- the ifs and buts -- is up for debate though but the decision to part ways with Bentinidis is a thoroughly professional decision. And one made keeping aside emotions, though there are federation sources quoted in reports as saying that Punia made the call after being nudged a little by the WFI.
Talking about nudging, the push or shove to get Malikov out of Dahiya’s camp is odd. To start with, we are talking about a coach -- who was initially brought in by WFI as training partner for Sushil Kumar before being roped in by Dahiya as his personal coach -- who oversaw the young wrestler’s medal-winning campaign on Olympic debut. Malikov worked with him for a period of six months and judging by the results he deserved an extension. Dahiya himself, it has been told in hushed tones, is reluctant to part with the Russian. But the higher powers of Indian wrestling are persistent, say sources.
It is also a slightly truncated Olympic preparatory cycle, let us not forget. Paris is less than three years away, and we are looking at a busy 2022 for the Indian wrestlers with two major multi-disciplinary Games -- the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China -- along with the regular tournaments including the Worlds scheduled in Belgrade, Serbia.
So, whatever the decisions taken -- the hiring or sacking -- it has to be done in affirmative fashion, and the new mentors should be roped in immediately so that they have enough time to work with the athletes. And the WFI also has enough time to review progress and make amends if needed, and not do anything foolish on the eve of a major tournament.
It seems the WFI is looking out for coaches, with Punia trying to get Andriy Stadnik in his corner. The Ukrainian wrestler is known to Indians. It was he who beat Sushil Kumar in the preliminary round at the Beijing Olympics, forcing the Indian to the repechage rounds and subsequently bronze. He won silver in Beijing and is an accomplished wrestler who fought in the same division as Punia (66kg back then). So, he will be familiar with the dynamics involved in the division. Also, more importantly, he has coached his wife Maria Stadnik to two World Championship golds and four Olympic medals. His coaching credentials, on the outset, are impeccable. Then again, he has predominantly worked with one wrestler for the majors. It is evident his methods and approach worked for Maria, but it need not work for Punia.
Experts feel so too, especially since the Ukrainian school of wrestling is slightly different from the Georgian or Russian way. In the past two decades, Indian wrestling has had inputs and influences from Georgia, Belarus and Russia who employ similar grappling styles and training philosophies. Stadnik, and the Ukrainian school of wrestling, might come across as a drastic departure for Punia. So, it is paramount the wrestler and Stadnik plan out an approach which builds from where Punia is at the moment, rather than go for a complete knockdown-and-build job.
The rest will, of course, depend on many factors, including Stadnik’s availability. Apparently, he is also contesting the Ukrainian wrestling federation elections. If he wins there, then he will not be available for the Indian coaching job. Bajrang will have to look at many other resumes. And while it might be easy for him to get a great coach -- given his credentials -- getting the right man, who would gel with the style and psyche of Punia won’t be easy either. Something that worked with Bentinidis. Just that, that chapter has come to an end, rightfully so.
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