When India’s Greco-Roman wrestlers were fighting for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics, their coach, Georgian Temo Kazarashvili, was still on a flight from Delhi to Almaty, where the Asian qualifiers began on Friday.
Kazarashvili was expected to reach Almaty around midnight Saturday, several hours after his wards were already knocked out of the tournament. But that isn’t all.
The women’s wrestlers, who will begin their quest for a place in the Olympics on Saturday morning, too were scheduled to reach Almaty at the same time as Kazarashvili – meaning, they will have to step on the mat barely hours after reaching the host city and without proper sleep for two nights.
Wrestling Federation of India assistant secretary Vinod Tomar said the reason for them reaching at the last minute – or in Kazarashvili’s case, after the event – was the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Raj Malik, the father of national champion Sonam, said the team left from Delhi early Friday morning. “I spoke to Sonam in the evening before she took her connecting flight. By the time she will reach her hotel after completing all formalities, it will be around 3 am. And early Saturday morning, she will have to be at the venue for the weigh-in followed by competition,” Malik said.
India has sent a five-member women’s team for the qualifiers. Apart from Sonam, others are Seema Bisla (50kg), Anshu Malik (57kg), Nisha Dahiya (68kg) and Pooja (76kg). Sonam, Anshu and Seema are considered decent bets to secure an Olympic quota in Almaty, but how much the rushed travel arrangements affect their performances remains to be seen.
Tomar said the federation ‘found it difficult to book flight tickets’.
“Earlier, there used to be a direct flight to Astana. But because of the pandemic, that option was not available. We managed to get 10 seats for a flight on April 7. So, we sent the six Greco-Roman wrestlers who competed on Friday, three referees and Greco-Roman chief coach Hargobind Singh,” Tomar said. “The next flight we got was for Friday morning. The rest of the team, including the Greco-Roman foreign coach and the women wrestlers, took that flight.”
Other women wrestlers competing only in Asian Championship, which will be held at the same venue, will leave from Delhi on April 13, Tomar said – that is one day before their draw and two days before the competition.
The Greco-Roman wrestlers, meanwhile, struggled to manage without the foreign coach. On occasions where bouts involving Indians were held simultaneously on two mats, Hargobind sat in one while for another, a wrestler filled in instead of a coach.
Eventually, none of the Indians qualified although five of them came agonisingly close. Gyanender (60kg), Ashu (67kg), Gurpreet Singh (77kg), Sunil Kumar (87kg category) and Naveen (130kg) lost in the semifinals. Only the finalists were assured of a place in the Olympics.
The last chance for the wrestlers to earn an Olympic spot will be the world qualifiers, to be held from May 6 to 9. India have so far won four quotas, three in freestyle – Ravi Kumar (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg) – and one in women’s, Vinesh Phogat (53kg).