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India’s male wrestlers have won medals at 3 of the last 4 Olympics. Now, they are struggling to qualify for Paris 2024 | Sport-others News

In three out of the last four Olympics, India’s male wrestlers have returned with at least one medal. This time, they are struggling to even qualify.

Owing to a combination of factors – misfortune, luck of draw and sub-par quality talent and limited run-up tournaments – India’s men’s freestyle wrestlers have been unable to win quotas for the Paris Olympics, extending their abysmal run. It leaves them in a major spot of bother with just one more chance left to qualify at the World Qualifiers from May 9-12.

The first day of the Asian Olympic Qualifiers began for India with one of the country’s top medal potential, Deepak Punia, being stopped from competing in the 86 kg category as he reached the venue late, even though he reached Bishkek against all odds after being stuck in flooded Dubai since Tuesday.

The nightmarish day, from India’s point of view, ended with a prodigy, Aman Sehrawat, being handed a harsh reality check after he was pinned by Uzbekistan’s Gullomjon Abdullaev in a little over two minutes in the 57 kg category semifinal.

India should still earn quotas in these two weight classes during the final qualification tournament in Istanbul next month.

Festive offer

But in other weight divisions – 65 kg where Sujeet Kalkal, too, was not allowed to compete; 74 kg where Jaideep could not make it beyond the quarterfinals; and the heavyweights (97 kg and 125 kg) where India have traditionally struggled and in which Deepak Nehra and Sumit lost in their first bouts – India is staring at a realistic possibility of missing out on Olympic berths in men’s divisions.

India have so far secured just one Olympic quota in wrestling, with Antim Panghal getting the job done at the World Championships last year in the 53 kg category. On Saturday, Vinesh Phogat will hope to add to India’s tally when she returns to international competition in more than a year, competing in 50 kg.

The picture might not have been so gloomy if Punia and Kalkal were not struck by misfortune.

The two wrestlers, who were stuck at the Dubai International Airport since Tuesday, reached Bishkek, the host city, shortly after 8 am on Friday. By then, however, the weigh-in, where wrestlers have to record their body weights and show they meet the criteria, had already begun.

Although the duo pleaded their cases, the organisers did not make any exemptions. Even the pleas made by Wrestling Federation of India president Sanjay Singh fell on deaf ears.

Punia and Kalkal, along with their coach Kamal Malikov and physio Shubham Gupta, were stranded at the Dubai airport owing to the record rainfall that led to floods and caused disruption. According to Kalkal’s father Dayanand, they spent two nights sleeping on the floor of the airport and could not get proper food.

As the flood situation improved, Punia and Kalkal’s flight – which was originally scheduled to leave at 10.45 pm local time – eventually took off post-midnight. The delay in departure meant that Punia and Kalkal, who were already in a race against time, could not reach the venue where the weigh-in was taking place, even though they travelled there straight from the airport.

It is learnt that the organisers pointed out that the rest of the Indian team was already present and an exemption couldn’t be made for just two wrestlers.

Punia, who narrowly missed out on a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, was training in Dagestan, Russia, along with Kalkal, who qualified in the 65 kg category ahead of Tokyo bronze medallist Bajrang Punia.

In their absence, the onus to clinch the first quota in men’s freestyle fell on the young shoulders of Aman Sehrawat. The 2023 Asian champion and Asian Games bronze medallist showed why he is considered one of India’s rising stars. He notched up comfortable wins over Yerassyl Mukhtaruly of Kazakhstan (10-0) and South Korea’s Sunggwon Kim (11-1) to enter the semifinals.

In the must-win bout – only the two finalists are awarded Olympic quotas – Sehrawat fell miserably short. Abdullaev, his seasoned opponent, started aggressively with a takedown in the opening seconds and followed up with a four-point throw. He then managed another takedown and pinned Sehrawat on the mat to wrap up the bout in just 2 minutes and 17 seconds to crush India’s hopes.

Whether the same wrestlers travel for the last qualifiers or if the team will be changed based on performances on Friday, is yet unclear.

World qualifiers, the last chance

India’s hopes of securing a quota in the men’s freestyle come down to the final event that will take place in Istanbul from May 9 to 12. For India’s wrestlers, the chances of winning a berth are marginally higher at the World event.

The reasons for this are two, primarily. One, because a majority of the top wrestlers will have already won a quota and will not participate, thus making the draw easier. Secondly, unlike the ongoing Asian qualifiers where only the two finalists are awarded a quota place, the world qualifiers will offer an additional place. A bout will be organised between the two third-placed wrestlers and the winner of that bout will also obtain one quota place for their country.

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