About two-and-a-half minutes into the second round of the men’s 86kg freestyle wrestling final at the Asian Games, Deepak Punia was taken down for what would be the final time by Hassan Yazdani of Iran. With that, the match would end with a 10-0 technical superiority win for the Olympic and world champion. It also brought India’s wrestling campaign at the Asiad to a close on a sombre note.
In the midst of a record campaign elsewhere, Hangzhou largely proved a disappointment on the wrestling front, with just Deepak’s silver to go alongside five bronze medals. India’s grapplers had won two gold medals out of the 17 overall in the 2018 Asian Games.
Before the competition, Antim Panghal, one of the top prospects from India, had voiced her disappointment that the national anthem wouldn’t be played should a wrestler win gold. This was because the Indian federation had been suspended by the world body for not conducting elections. Eventually, that wouldn’t prove to be a problem. Hangzhou was the first time in 13 years that an Indian wrestler didn’t make the top of the podium at the Asiad.
The 18 athletes who travelled to Hangzhou probably had one of the poorest preparations for a major event in recent history. Trouble had started earlier this year following an unprecedented protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar spearheaded by Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat – the two Asian gold medallists from 2018, incidentally.
As the Government took over control of the federation, ultimately leading to its suspension, athletes suffered. International exposure came to a halt, as did domestic competitions. Players were reduced to training at their home academies instead of being part of a national camp, as had been the case previously. Training at home meant not being able to spar with top-quality opponents in the way that had been possible in a national camp.
Not being able to compete in overseas competitions this year—the Indian team has only taken part in two ranking series outside the major competitions, such as the Asian Championships and World Championships, prior to the Asian Games—meant that athletes couldn’t really see where they stood at the world level.
The sport remained mired in controversy outside the mat as well. After Bajrang and Vinesh were granted automatic qualification for the Asian Games, two players went to court. While Vinesh eventually opted out of the Games, Bajrang chose to go to Hangzhou. However, any hopes of a podium finish from Bajrang would have to be based on past performances since the Olympic bronze medallist and four-time Worlds medallist hadn’t wrestled since the 2022 World Championships.
But Bajrang wasn’t the only wrestler short on practice. Out of the 18 wrestlers shortlisted for competing at the 19th Asian Games in China’s Hangzhou—after trials in June—camps were held only for six wrestlers under the Greco-Roman category. No national or international camps were organised to train the 12 freestyle wrestlers.
The results at Hangzhou could have been predicted going by how India’s performances dipped over the course of the year. At the Asian Wrestling Championships in April, India won one gold, one silver, and four bronze medals in the 18 Olympic weight categories. By the World Championships, the number came down to a solitary bronze, won by Antim. Even India’s gold medallist from the Asian Championships, Aman Sehrawat, lost out early in Belgrade in September.
At the Asian Games, the outcome of an attritional year was for all to see. Asian champion Aman Sehrawat was beaten in the semifinal of the men’s 57kg category by former U-23 World champion Toshihiro Hasegawa of Japan. The margin of victory was narrow, with Hasegawa winning 12-10 despite being up 6-1 at the break. Aman routinely pulls back big leads but was left with too much to do in the final round. With Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya injured, a gold at the Asian Games would have done a lot for Aman’s self-belief, but he would have to be satisfied with a bronze.
Bajrang wouldn’t even get that. Going into the tournament on the back of a year-long layoff and facing criticism for getting a direct entry to the Indian team was hard enough. The fact that the Olympic bronze medallist was going to go against one of the strongest Asian fields in recent years with world champion Rahman Amouzad Khalili in the Indian’s bracket only made it worse. The gap in form showed as Bajrang was beaten comprehensively 8-1 in the semifinals. In the bronze medal match, it would get even worse as the Indian went down 10-0 to Japan’s Kaiki Yamaguchi. As Bajrang finished outside the podium at an international tournament for the first time since the 2017 Worlds, it remains to be seen just how the veteran bounces back.
It wasn’t all disappointment, though. Sunil Kumar became the first Indian Greco-Roman wrestler to medal since 2010, when he won bronze in the 87kg category.
Antim had the unfortunate luck of facing Japanese star Akari Fujinami in the quarterfinals of the women’s 53kg category. And although Antim would be pinned—having already lost by superiority to the same wrestler at the Asian Championships earlier this year—the Indian would recover back with a win over Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist Bat–Ochiryn Bolortuyaa in the Asian Games bronze medal playoff. With Vinesh still in the early stages of her recovery from knee surgery, Antim looks very much like securing her grasp on the Indian team slot in the women’s 53kg category.
Deepak also gave something to cheer about. Although outplayed in the final by a true great of the sport, Deepak showed plenty of promise in his performance. Having dealt with a thigh injury earlier this season, Deepak picked up a win against Uzbekistan’s Javrail Shapiev, a Tokyo Olympic and 2023 Worlds fifth-place finisher. In an overall dispiriting result, Deepak’s medal was the silver lining, giving hope that 2024 will bring better results.