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India Dominates Wrestling at 2022 Commonwealth Games; But Where are the Big Men?

India won six gold medals out of a possible 12 at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, with four coming in the men’s divisions and two in women’s freestyle. The heavyweight wrestlers failed yet again and it is time we tried to solve this riddle.
Ravi Dahiya wrestling gold at CWG

Wrestler Ravi Dahiya en route gold in the 57kg division at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on July 6.

It was a given that India would win 12 medals out of a possible 12 from wrestling at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. It was just a matter of what colour the medals would be. They have gone one better than Gold Coast 2018, where India won 12 out of which five were gold. With six gold in their kitty, India finished, as billed, the top wrestling nation at CWG. By a huge margin that too The tally though, bettering the mark from the previous editions, is not a sign of Indian wrestling’s upswing, but an indicator of the general quality of competition at the Commonwealth level.

As expected, the women wrestlers had more challenges from opposition with Nigeria, India and Canada, traditionally strong nations, splitting the medals between them. India, through Vinesh Phogat in the 53kg category, and Sakshi Malik in the 62kg division, won gold while Nigeria took home three top prizes and Canada secured one.

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The men’s competition was dominated by India, albeit in the divisions India have been traditionally strong at international meets. Indian heavyweight wrestlers have always struggled against foriegn big men and that trend continued with the four gold medals coming in the first four weight categories of the competition -- Ravi Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Naveen Malik (74kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg). India’s heavyweight wrestlers -- Deepak Nehra in the 97kg and Mohit Grewal in the 125kg lost out. In both these divisions, the gold went to Canada -- to wrestlers of Indian origin to be exact.

There is a difference in how Canadian big men get primed for competition compared to India. They get seasoned, invariably, in NCAA competitions in the US, where they rub shoulders with world class competitors. For instance, Amar Dhesi of Canada, who won gold in the 125 kg divisions is a decorated athlete in the NCAA and a former junior world champion. 

Indian wrestlers always have that handicap, especially the big men, who always struggle to reach the latter stages of international competitions, including ranking and invitational ones. So, when allotments for exposure trips happen, the national federation, looking at returns, usually sends the lower weight divisions for most competitions. This creates a domino effect that comes out glaringly in multi-disciple Games such as the CWG or the Asiad.

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Of course, this shortcoming in the programme hardly gets the due attention in competitions such as the CWG, where India dominate and come out as the top nation. Six gold medals out of a possible 12 can never be taken as a fault of the system. 

However, in the case of the Commonwealth Games, it makes prudent sense that we become pessimists. Why is the glass half empty? We should ask. And then figure out the answer, which is right under our noses, and then address it, so that our actions and performance match what the broadcaster is saying through Ravi Dahiya in one of the promos for the CWG. 

Dahiya, the Tokyo silver medallist, Asian champion and now CWG champion, says in it that he won’t rest until India becomes the capital of world wrestling. Well, for that to happen, it would take more than the will power and skill of lower division wrestlers. It would require a holistic and wholesome programme that nurtures everyone in an equal sense.

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