Sushil Kumar has already carried India’s flag at the London Olympics; now the wrestler carries his country’s hopes of an elusive gold medal.
Beijing shooting champion Abhinav Bindra, India’s first individual gold medallist, crashed out in the first round in London while boxer Mary Kom took bronze on Wednesday to add to the one won in badminton by Saina Nehwal.
Now the spotlight falls on Sushil, a Beijing bronze medallist and the 2010 world champion, as he aims for gold in the men’s 66kg freestyle wrestling class.
“In my category, there are few wrestlers with whom I have not wrestled so far,” said the 29-year-old from Najafgarh.
“But this is the Olympics. You will have to be prepared for anything,” he added. “People back home have lot of expectations not only from me, but from other wrestlers as well. This is a very good sign.
“You will not find the Indian wrestlers wanting in the ring. We are determined to give our best. But then, it is sports. Nothing can be predicted for sure.”
The son of a bus driver, who was himself a wrestler, Sushil was inspired to take up the sport by his cousin Sandeep.
However, Sandeep quit wrestling because the family could support just the one wrestler and it was a decision that went on to be rewarded with bronze in Beijing, world championship gold in Moscow and a Commonwealth Games gold medal on home soil in Delhi two years ago.
And Virender Kumar, coach at the wrestling centre where Kumar started his career has high hopes for both him and India's Yogeshwar Dutt, competing in the 60kg freestyle.
“We expect both Sushil and Yogeshwar to get gold because both of them are very good,” Virender Kumar told an Indian daily. “They have sufficient world-class experience. They have participated in three Olympics.”
“Sushil had some problems with his shoulder during the qualifying events but at present he is in the best of form. He is the frontrunner for the gold. He had told us before leaving that he will change the colour of his medal. I am sure he will turn the bronze into gold.”
Whether Sushil does stand atop the podium in London, or not, he has already had a huge impact upon wrestling, a sport with deep roots in India but one, like many others, that has been overshadowed by India’s obsession with cricket.
Geeta Phogat’s bronze dream crushed
India’s lone woman wrestler Geeta Phogat lost in the repechage round of the 55kg freestyle event to Ukraine’s Tetyana Lazareva 0-3 and finished out of the medals yesterday. Despite losing her opening bout to Canada’s World No 2 Tonya Lynn Verbeek (1-3), Geeta had a shot at the bronze medal in the repechage round as Verbeek entered the final.
A wrestler enters the repechage round if his/her first round opponent makes it to the gold medal match. Geeta would have had to first beat Lazareva and then Colombia’s Castillo Renteria in the repechage round to claim the bronze medal. However, her loss to Lazareva ended India’s medal hopes.