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Sakshi saves Indian wrestling blushes in controversial 2016

Source: PTI
Last updated on: December 23, 2016 12:09 IST
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Sakshi Malik

IMAGE: Sakshi Malik celebrates after winning the bronze medal match at the Rio Olympics. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images.

A bitter court battle, followed by an embarrassing dope scandal, before some redemption through an Olympic medal -- Indian wrestling in 2016 mirrored the script of a Bollywood potboiler in which Sakshi Malik emerged as the new star on the horizon.

For most part of the year, wrestling hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, making it a tumultuous Olympic build-up after two-time medallist Sushil Kumar found himself ousted from contention just a couple of months before the Games in Rio.

The chain of events that set in ended up disgracing the sport before Sakshi emerged an unlikely saviour in the Brazillian city.

Sakshi not only scripted history by becoming the first woman wrestler from India to bag an Olympic medal, she also became the first to win a medal for the country at the Rio Games before shuttler P V Sindhu capped it off with a silver.

Fighting back from 0-5 down to beat Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan 8-5 in the dying minutes of the bronze medal play-off match in women's 58kg freestyle, Sakshi ended India's painful wait at the 2016 Rio Olympics for a medal and immediately sent the nation of 1.2 billion into euphoria.

In fact, the 24-year-old's feat also covered up for the under-achievement of Indian wrestlers at the mega-event with just one medal coming from a strong eight-member team that boasted of three women for the first time.  

Even London Games bronze-medallist Yogeshwar Dutt failed to live up to the expectations, bowing out in the qualifying round to end his Olympic campaign on a disappointing note.

Though Sakshi's heroics provided solace, it was not enough to eclipse the shock and embarrassment that India had to endure with Narsingh's ouster from the Olympics.

Narsingh Yadav

IMAGE: Wrestler Narsingh Yadav.

Narsingh was eventually handed a four-year ban for flunking a dope test after the ad-hoc division of the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) overturned the clean chit given to him by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA).     

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had appealed against NADA's all-clear to Narsingh at CAS, three days ahead of his scheduled opening bout at the Olympics.

The 27-year-old's name had appeared in the official Olympic schedule after he underwent the mandatory weigh-in but the CAS verdict dashed all his hopes. 

In fact, the run-up to the Olympics was nowhere close to being ideal for either Narsingh or the Indian team with more than one controversy affecting their focus.

Personally for Narsingh, there was no dearth of trouble ahead of the Games.

What started as a minor tussle for an Olympic berth in men's 74kg freestyle, snowballed into an ugly slanging match that ended in a legal battle: though he won in the court, the ordeal was far from over as Narsingh landed in a bigger mess with his blood sample returning positive for a banned substance.

In September 2015, Narsingh had bagged an Olympic berth for India at the World Championships in Las Vegas with a bronze medal.

IMAGE: Sushil Kumar in action. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

However, despite securing a quota place, Narsingh always knew that he may not be an automatic choice to represent India in the 74kg category at the Rio Games with Sushil being in the same weight category as him.

Going by norms in the WFI guidelines, a quota belongs to the nation and not to an individual and hence, former world champion Sushil insisted on a trial to decide who would represent India at the Olympics in 74kg category.

Narsingh, on the other hand, kept staking his claim for the berth. Even Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) had been steadfast in its stand to send the Maharashtra grappler to Rio on the basis of him grabbing the quota and also due to fear that it would prompt other wrestlers to demand trials in other weight divisions as well.

With WFI not keen on holding a trial, Sushil moved the Delhi High Court.

But in the end, it was heartbreak for the 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medallist and 2012 London Games silver medallist as the court rejected Sushil's plea on June 6.

With still two months to go for the Games, it was finally time for Narsingh and the others to solely focus on their preparations and not get distracted by other issues.

But even as things started to fall in place, about a fortnight before the commencement of the Olympics, Narsingh found himself in the midst of a doping scandal.

What followed was another battle to clear his name. Narsingh claimed innocence, saying it was a conspiracy against him and his food supplements and water had been spiked. Even WFI stood firmly behind the wrestler, supporting his sabotage theory.

Although Narsingh and WFI failed to provide enough evidence against the conspiracy theory during a number of hearings in front of the NADA panel, it cleared the wrestler of all charges, convinced that he was a victim of sabotage.

IMAGE: An injured Vinesh Phogat is treated before pulling out of the women's 48kg freestyle quarter-final bout at the Rio Olympics. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images

It seemed that the nightmare was finally over with Narsingh boarding the flight to Rio, but only to be barred from competing, a day before his scheduled bout.

With WFI adamant on clearing Narsingh's name, his case was eventually handed over to the CBI, which is currently probing it.

For a sport that was surrounded by controversy for major part of the year, the end couldn't have been without a hiccup either as the Professional Wrestling League stood postponed to next year. The organisers claimed that government's move to demonetise currency played a part in it.

With PWL 2 now rescheduled from January 2-19, wrestling can only hope for an auspicious start in 2017. 

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