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EXCLUSIVE | Bajrang Punia’s Coach to Return to India on July 30

Bajrang Punia’s coach Emzarios ‘Shako’ Bentinidis has acquired the required clearances from Georgian and Indian governments to return to India and join his ward. Shako will undergo the necessary amount of quarantine before reuniting and restarting training with Bajrang and Jitender Kumar.
Wrestler Bajrang Punia and coach Shako Bentinidis

Shako Bentinidis has been Bajrang Punia’s personal coach since February 2018. Under him, the wrestler won silver and bronze at the World Championships in the 2018 and ’19 editions.

Bajrang Punia will reunite with his personal coach, Emzarios ‘Shako’ Bentinidis, by mid-August. Bentinidis, who travelled back to Georgia in March when the lockdown began in India, will reach New Delhi on July 30.

“I know there will be a quarantine period once I land in New Delhi on July 30. I am also taking a personal risk too but I have to do this because Bajrang is like family to me. We are very close and I want to get back to training  him and Jitender [Kumar],” said Bentinidis, confirming his travel plans to Newsclick.

Bentinidis and compatriot Temo Kasarashvili, India’s Greco-Roman coach, are flying back together from Tbilisi after making special arrangements with the Georgian government.

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“It has been very difficult,” said Bentinidis, over phone from the Georgian capital. “Two months back, Air India flew a flight out of Tbilisi but it was only meant to carry Indians back home. I tried to get myself on board but it did not happen. Now, I sought help from my government and made arrangements to return to India.

Bentinidis, in fact, was not keen to fly back to Georgia in the first place when the lockdown was announced in March. Despite his family back home expressing concerns, the 44-year-old former European champion wanted to remain with Punia. At that point, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was yet to postpone the Games in Tokyo. And Bentinidis, understandably, did not want to leave Punia, a firm medal favourite, in the lurch. 

Punia however, insisted, the coach should go back to his family since the pandemic situation was worsening across the world. Now things are in the green in Georgia, according to the coach. And so he feels Punia needs him more than his kin. 

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He brushed aside rumours that there was pressure from the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) to return. The WFI had slashed his salary by 30 percent in June. They were also, reportedly, negotiating another pay cut a couple of weeks back, considering that the coach was in a ‘work from home’ mode. As per reports, he was earning $6,500 (around Rs. 4.8 lakh) per month before the salary cut.

“The decision to fly back is personal and everything else is OK,” said Bentinidis, referring to the salary scenario. “Things are way better in Georgia. I know in India the pandemic is still at a crucial stage. And, once I am back I will have to take stock of a lot of things, including safety of Bajrang and other wrestlers, as well as my personal safety, before getting back to training. Of course, I will be taking it slowly. There is no rush. Bajrang is still focused and has been training and once I join him, we will plan the future course in consultation with the federation and Indian sports authorities.”

Bentinidis’ trainees — Punia and Jitender, who fights in the 74kg category  incidentally were among the elite wrestlers who expressed apprehension when the WFI planned a restart of the training at the beginning of this month. The two had shifted base to the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Vijayanagar, Karnataka, a facility owned and run by JSW Sports. In all probability, Bentinidis will resume training his wards at the IIS, rather than calling them back to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Sonepat, exposing them to the risk of travel as well as wasting days in quarantine.

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Bentinidis has been personal coach of Punia since February 2018. Under him, Punia won a silver and bronze at the World Championships in the 2018 and ’19 editions respectively. He also won gold in the 2018 Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, and was crowned Asian champion in 2019. 

Between the 2018 and 2019 World Championships, the 26-year-old Indian also enjoyed an unprecedented unbeaten run that saw him become the World No. 1 in the 65kg freestyle category. He is currently ranked No. 2 in the United World Wrestling (UWW) rankings for the division, behind Gadzhimurad Rashidov of Russia.

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