From India’s first individual medallist (KD Jadhav, 1952) to the only double individual medallist (Sushil Kumar, 2008 and 2012), wrestling has been one of India’s most successful sports at the Olympics.
In 2016, India sent its largest contingent to the Games yet — eight, including eventual bronze medallist Sakshi Malik. This year, as things stand, four have already qualified for Tokyo — Ravi Dahiya (men’s 57kg freestyle), Bajrang Punia (men’s 65kg), Deepak Punia (men’s 86kg) and Vinesh Phogat (women’s 53kg). The contingent could be significantly bigger this time as another 14 wrestlers will get a chance to add to that number at the Asian Olympic qualifier that begins in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Friday. While Indian wrestlers have to finish with either a gold or a silver to qualify, the absence of North Korea, who have pulled out of the Olympics altogether, might make things a little easier.
There will be additional pressure owing to the fact that there are fewer Olympic spots on offer overall (288 in Tokyo or about 16 qualifiers in each category as compared to 350 and 20 qualifiers in each weight division at the Rio Olympics). This means that should wrestlers not qualify at the Asian qualifiers, they will have just one more chance — at the World Qualifiers in May.
So who has the best chance of qualifying? We break it down by each weight category.
No Indian has qualified in the Greco Roman category so far. India’s best chance to qualify will be here since the divisions (especially in the heavier weights) are relatively weaker to that at the World level. India’s best prospects in this category will be through Gurpreet in the men’s 77kg division and Sunil in the men’s 87kg division.
The field is depleted since four Asians already qualified at the World Championships, but India’s representative, Gyanendra Singh’s chances will depend on his draw. With 2020 Asian silver medallist and 2018 World silver medallist Zholaman Sharshenbekov in the mix, the best hope for Gyanendra – the 2018 Asian bronze medallist — is to be placed on the opposite side of the draw.
With no Asian wrestler having qualified at the 2019 World Championships, the odds are stacked against India’s Ashu, a bronze medallist at the 2020 Asian Championships. Three-time World champion Ryu Han Su of South Korea is the heavy favourite, while former World bronze medallist Meirzhan Shermakhanbet of Kazakhstan is another strong contender.
Gurpreet Singh won the Rome Ranking series last year but that tournament has also been his last international event. He missed the Asian Championships last year as well as the Rome Ranking series a couple of months ago, due to a niggle. Competition in his division will come from former Asian champion Akhzol Makhmudov, 2019 Asian silver-medallist Hujun Zhang of China, as well as two-time Olympic medalist Hyeon Woo Kim who is bidding to qualify for his third Olympic Games
As the first Indian Greco-Roman wrestler in 27 years to win an Asian title in 2020, plenty of hopes would be on Sunil Kumar’s shoulders.However, that title was won in the absence of three-time Asian champion and 2017 World bronze medalist Hossein Nouri of Iran. The two have faced off before, with the Iranian beating the Indian in the final of the 2019 Asian Championships. A silver wouldn’t be a bad result this time around, and Sunil would hope that the draw keeps him away from the Iranian’s side of the bracket.
Although he beat out 2016 Olympian Hardeep Singh to earn his right to compete at the Asian qualifiers, Ravi Kumar will face a tough ask to make it to Tokyo. Three Asian champions, including the reigning one in Mohammad Saravi of Iran in the competition mean Ravi’s path to Olympian status will be a hard one.
With just one Asian having qualified at the World Championships, the field at the Asian qualifiers is likely to be too hard for India’s Naveen Kumar to overcome.
The absence of North Korea will be most felt in the women’s freestyle category. Seema Bisla would benefit from the absence of World bronze medalist Kim Son-Hyan, while the exit of Worlds quarterfinalist Jong In Son should work in favour of Anshu Malik.
Women’s 50kg division
Seema Bisla was a win away from making it to Games in the 2019 World Championships itself, but she lost to eventual bronze medallist Ekaterina Poleschuk of Russia. She has a good chance of booking her ticket to Tokyo in Almaty though. Japan’s Yui Susaki is the clear favourite to win gold, and avoiding her side of the draw is key.
Women’s 57kg division
Anshu Malik is coming off an injury niggle that caused her to concede a match in the Rome Ranking series. However, with the field relatively bare owing to the absence of the wrestlers from North Korea and with Japan and China having already qualified, Malik would be a heavy favourite to return with an Olympic quota.
Women’s 62kg division
Although she’s earned her place in the Indian team by beating Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, former cadet World champion Sonam Malik won’t have it easy in Almaty. Her biggest challenge would be former Junior World silver medalist Nabira Esenbaeva of Uzbekistant and Asian silver medalist Ayaulym Kassymova of Kazakhstan.
Women’s 68kg division
Coming off a four-year ban, Nisha Dahiya will be looking to make up for lost time having made the Indian team ahead of 2020 Asian Champion Divya Sain. Although three of Dahiya’s toughest rivals are out of the equation (Japan and Mongolia having qualified already and no North Korea), her path to Tokyo through Almaty isn’t going to be easy. Kazakhstan’s Zhamila Bakbergenova is in excellent form having won gold the Rome Ranking series in March, while additional challenges will be posed by 21-year -old Junior World silver medallist Meerim Zhumanazaravo of Kyrgyzstan and 2014 Asian Games champion Zhou Feng of China.
Women’s 72kg division
In another relatively threadbare field with three Asian countries having already qualified for the Olympics, India’s Pooja Sihag has a strong chance of qualifying for the Tokyo Games. Her main rivals will be Aiperi Kyzy of Krygyzstan and South Korea’s Seo-yeon Jeong, both of whom are silver medallists at the Asian Championships.
India has already qualified three wrestlers in the men’s freestyle division and most eyes will be on the prospects of Sandeep Mann in the marquee 74kg division. Prospects are dimmer in the heavier divisions.
Sandeep Mann earned his place in the Indian team on the back of wins over World Championships medallist Narsingh Yadav and former Asian champion Amit Dhankar. In Almaty, two-time World Championships medallist Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan will be a difficult obstacle, as will former Asian and World medallist Adam Batirov of Bahrain and 2016 World championship bronze medallist Elaman Uulu Dogdurbek of Kazakhstan.
Satyawart Kadian has his task cut out. The ten-man bracket in the 97kg division is headlined by Rio bronze medalist Magomed Ibragimov of Uzbekistan, but it’s Iran’s Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian who will be the biggest threat. A former World bronze medallist, Mohammadian returned from a 2019 doping ban with a bang in 2020 by pinning Olympic champion Kyle Snyder.
Needing to make the final to qualify, India’s representative Sumit Malik got a bit of good fortune after Uzbekistan’s Khasanboy Rakhimov, bronze medallist at the 2019 World championships failed a doping test. It resulted in Iran getting the Olympic quota — removing a serious threat at the Asian qualifiers. It also meant that Uzbekistan will be going into the competition with a less accomplished wrestler. Sumit will still have to hope for a favourable draw and avoid Asian Champion and favourite Yusup Batirmurzaev of Kazakhstan.
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