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Lamenting the Fall of a Great Wrestler

Sushil Kumar was arrested on Sunday and has been remanded for six days. The wrestler’s failings outside the mat have led him to the place he is today, but as much as he is to blame, the system too has failed him. A statement made by the WFI’s secretary has made clear how little federations care about their athletes lives outside the arena. It is an attitude that has to change for the sake of Indian sport.
Sushil Kumar arrested

Even in jail, Sushil Kumar remains a case study, a role model, but in a way no one ever imagined.

The inevitable happened on Sunday — wrestler Sushil Kumar, a wanted man, albeit for all the wrong reasons, was arrested by Delhi Police, reportedly at Mundka on the outskirts of the capital. Coincidentally, Sunday, the 23rd day of May, also happens to be World Wrestling Day. The eerie coincidence, and it's sickening irony is slowly sinking in: Sushil Kumar, former world champion, two-time Olympic medallist, and the man who took modern Indian wrestling onto the world stage, is in jail! 

The Rohini District Court remanded Sushil in police custody for six days to aid investigation into the murder of Sagar Dhankhar, a former junior India wrestler, who succumbed to injuries sustained after being beaten up at the Chhatrasal Stadium. The death, on May 5, followed an altercation the previous night in which Sushil was allegedly involved. The details of the case — including mobile camera footage of the incident which allegedly implicates Sushil — are yet to come out in the open. The investigation, meanwhile, has taken multiple routes, one involving property dispute, and one considering a gang rivalry angle with Sushil being right in the middle of the NCR’s underworld. 

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Everyone hopes the investigation will lead to justice for the deceased and those under a cloud of suspicion. However, the way things have transpired, inspires little confidence. Needless to say, both Sushil — who should not have run from the law in the first place if he is innocent as claimed by his lawyers — and Delhi Police are to be blamed for the rather bad way in which news has been trickling out about the case. A thriller is being written on the sports pages, for sure. But then one of India’s greatest athletes is at the guillotine here. So it is paramount — important for Indian sport’s future even — to give thought to the factors that have brought Sushil where he is now, in the pits. 

Sushil’s arrest, its circumstances and the narrative it followed, remain shrouded in mystery much like the incident that led to India’s greatest wrestler hiding from the law for over a fortnight. Two storylines surfaced — the first says he had surrendered to Punjab Police on Saturday, May 22, apparently in Jalandhar; and the other is that Delhi Police’s special team nabbed him and his associate while they were travelling on a scooter at Mundka. Both received traction in the media. And both narratives cited sources from the police team. 

The ambiguity in the whole episode is something that requires addressing to start with. After all, Sushil is a public figure and was a national treasure till the fateful night of May 4. And all of us, who celebrated his rise and stature in the past, have a right to know the truth. 

The police is probably not mandated by law to put this out on public domain, but an open clarification is needed since misinformation in various forms is doing the rounds. Besides, in a purely emotional sense, as sports lovers, it makes a difference for us to know whether he surrendered himself (of his own free will) in Punjab, or was chased down like a petty criminal while travelling in a two-wheeler in Delhi. This is no minor detail. It could also have a bearing on how the court looks at Sushil during the course of the hearing. 

Sushil Kumar arrested in Delhi

Regardless of whether he is found guilty or not, one hopes the police as well as those involved in the case observe diligence in dealing with things including interrogation, and treat the man the respect he deserves. 

A video, which has been circulating on social media since Sunday afternoon, shows Sushil being escorted out of a police station — apparently in Saket, New Delhi. In the video Sushil’s face is wrapped up, while two policemen have secured his arms. An armed officer leads the way. It is a common image for those familiar with news covering arrests of criminals. 

The visual is hurtful and haunting. For me, there are personal as well as professional reasons involved. I was once a wrestler, and being a sports journalist on the Olympic sports beat, close to Sushil as well. And, over the years, one has seen armed personnel escort him, but as a VIP, a star, a hero, and an Olympic medallist in a country where we only get two or three every four years. It is unfortunate that those visuals would be superseded by this new one which reminds us of failure — of Sushil the sports star, and of everything else around him we created that made the man, leading to factors that would eventually break the man.

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But the hurt stems not just from a sense of professional propriety, or personal heartache. It is Indian sport which is reeling. The hurt is not just for Sushil but what made Sushil. And till Sushil was winning medals, India was responsible for Sushil. When he was being led out of a police station (small mercy that it was not in shackles), India and its sporting establishment had already washed their hands of him. Many by just being silent, some by being vocal. The situation was brought upon by Sushil alone, they say, including the wrestling fraternity, whose stance possibly mirrors that of all the institutions and the people which nurtured him to a world beater, and then raised him onto a pedestal, and also, to a large extent, let him fall from there. 

One can understand the mud being slung out of disappointment. The first emotion that I went through was that too. But, once everything sunk in, the picture became depressing and bleak as well as telling. It was not just about Sushil, one realised, but about Sushils all around the country.

The attempt is not to absolve Sushil here but to shed light on the overwhelming grey in the picture. Sushil, as Indian wrestling's biggest star, perhaps had the chance to draw the line at some point. He did not. We have the black on one side, with all the evidence stacked against Sushil, and the white on the other, with all his accomplishments and public persona painting the bright picture. Then there is the grey area that’s tricky to decipher — was he a victim of stardom, or of his own ego and recklessness? 

And, in this grey zone, we have finally got our very own Mike Tyson. The tragic story of Tyson and Sushil may not have parallels, but they tell you of a script that has been played out all too often in fight sports — how heroes fall, and invariably because of the choices they made. 

A deeper introspection would reveal that the establishment, and the ecosystem around such athletes never gave them the opportunity to make the right choices in the first place. It is the same in Indian wrestling, and even boxing. One is reminded of how boxer Vijender Singh narrowly escaped incarceration in a narcotics case. Eerily enough, both Vijender and Sushil had won bronze medals at the same Olympic Games, in Beijing 2008. 

Vijender’s case, possibly like Sushil’s, had a lot to do with the kind of people he associated with post stardom. Both athletes had come up the ranks through the traditional Indian sports system, run by the federations and the sports ministry. The camps, or training centres, are in essence glorified, dingy and musty cocoons. The athletes in them are shielded — bodes well to avoid distractions as they prepare to become world beaters. But then, post stardom, they suddenly get to express their will, and exercise a newfound freedom, and invariably get mixed up with people in the wrong end of the legal or social spectrum. Their defenses are honed perfectly to evade a jab or a takedown. But never to sidestep societal pitfalls and traps.

The similarities are many, but they end there too. Each story has had its own personal narratives, the cast varies but the variables and constants involved always look similar. It is these parallels that should concern us. The lack of a more personalised system which places people around the athlete to point fingers and chide and correct the moral and ethical compasses at the right time. And not when the stinky stuff hits the fan.

The knives are out now. That, after all, is the best we do — not for surgical removal of the rot, but to further inflict wounds on the fallen — an easy action undertaken with relish.

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The  mudslinging began, sadly, from top of the Indian wrestling establishment. Vinod Tomar, Wrestling Federation of India’s (WFI’s) secretary, was quoted by a news agency saying that Sushil has brought disrepute to Indian wrestling. The hypocrisy in Tomar’s statement is two pronged. To start with, Indian wrestling’s reputation, or its global standing today, owe a lot to Sushil. And secondly because of what he said immediately after.

"Yes, I must say that the image of Indian wrestling has been hurt badly by this. But we have nothing to do with what wrestlers do away from the mat. We are concerned with their on-mat performance," he said, washing his hands off anything that would require the federation to go the extra step.

“The sport has struggled hard in earning a reputation because for a long time wrestlers were known only as a bunch of goons," Tomar further said. The official is right. He does not need to look too far either. The WFI president is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh. His 2014 election affidavit, as per reports, says he was charged in numerous criminal cases. 

WFI's biggest failure is that they never tried or wanted to free wrestling from its alleged criminal connections. The wrestling body possibly kept quiet because it helped the honchos maintain their grip over the sport. The Model Town stadium (Chhatrasal) has, reportedly, been the hub of such activities for many years. It is known to all yet neither the administration, nor the police made an effort to clean the government-owned facility which houses Satpal Singh’s training centre. It has a lot to do with the fact that the politicians often use wrestlers and boxers for their shady activities. And everyone is happy with the ongoing system since it serves their immediate purposes whatever that may be. Sushil is a product of the system.

One can understand the WFI’s position about not having control over the moral and ethical choices of, say, a national level wrestler or someone in the lower rungs. But we are talking about Indian wrestling royalty here. Sporting bodies across the world take care of their stars without complaint. These women and men are ambassadors and their good standing and goodwill are important for the larger growth of the sport and thereby the concerned organization. The support does not begin or end on the mat or in the ring. Things have to be holistic if we don’t want to see more Sushils in the future.

Sushil’s case — no matter its direction — will not bring down Indian wrestling, the way the WFI officials fear. If Sushil has erred, he will and should be punished by the law. But that will lay bare the realities of the sport. And shining a light on reality never brings disrepute. That happens only if the whole establishment is a charade. And, in many aspects, it is indeed a charade. 

Sushil’s case lays bare the hypocrisy, lack of intent, and involvement of sports governing bodies in athletes’ lives. It will act as a big lesson and should help in course correction before it’s too late. Sushil’s example will, hopefully, make athletes and their managers cautious about whom they surround themselves with, and how to identify nexuses that have the potential to bring everydown down crashing.

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That’s perhaps the biggest irony in this situation. Even in jail, Sushil remains a case study, a role model, but in a way no one ever imagined. Back in 2012, when I had the opportunity to hang around Sushil for a couple of days to understand the London Games silver medallist’s daily routine, it was a revelation to see the way young wrestlers at Chhatrasal used to look up to him. There was an incident while we were in the dorm. A young boy was brought to Sushil by one of the coaches. He was apparently being a little lazy. The kid was almost in tears standing in front of the pahalwan ji. Sushil, the role model, patted his back and gave him some advice on hard work. He then handed the kid his glass of juice. The boy, one felt, went back inspired and determined. 

Maybe Sagar was among those young kids there at the time, shadowing Sushil Kumar and seeking wisdom and inspiration from him. 

Nine years later, what remains out there is a bare and painful truth. Indian sport is poorer now and Sushil Kumar is not the only culprit. Let that fact haunt us, and while we try to unravel it, let us try to be kind and empathetic in our judgement of a wrestler who seems more lost and confused at the moment than guilty — something the law of the land will decide.

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