Wrestling for a spot of fame

Wrestling for a spot of fame

Sushil Kumar's might be the one who bagged the gold that made the headlines, but Delhi's akharas are teeming with young men – and some women – who too have stars in their eyes.

The Delhi boy's gold, a part of the rich haul of medals Indian wrestlers brought home from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, has inspired others training at akharas in and around Delhi.

Rural Delhi has a rich wrestling culture.

“Going to akharas in not a new thing, it has been a tradition in the villages of India from ancient times. When a boy turns 14, his father or the elders tell him to join the akhara for a healthy lifestyle and an excellent physique. Every father wants to see broad shoulders and big biceps on his son,” says Kripal Bhadana, a veteran wrestler.

“It is not just a sport for us, it is a way of life. Going to akharas early morning and offering prayers to Lord Hanuman makes us fearless and pure. We don’t drink, smoke and or take drugs. Whatever muscles you see in the akharas are pure and made without steroids,” he adds.

In Delhi, the wrestling tradition is mostly spread among the Jat and Gujjar communities living in the villages at the outskirts of the city. They have farming land, cows and buffalos for business and houses to rent out.

“People who have adequate financial support are joining the akharas. The government should provide equal opportunities to those who do not have enough money to continue their practice,” says Sunil Dahiya, another wrestler who practises at Chhatrasal Stadium.

Though there are good wrestling arenas at many stadiums in Delhi, the wrestlers living in hostel don't get even basic amenities. At Chhattrasal stadium, three or more wrestlers live in a 10x10-foot room.

Dozens share a toilet and a bathroom. The gym facilities are also not adequate. Trees are used for rope-climbing exercises, without landing-cushions.
A number of Delhi’s akharas, which produce scores of wrestlers every year, do not have floor mats and the wrestlers practise on soil.

The wrestlers have a long-pending list of demands: more facilities, scholarships, promotion of the game, better arenas, funds for maintaining their diets and proper wrestling attire.

The government’s response is slow: the wrestling facilities in Delhi are improving but at a snail’s speed.

“Our wrestlers are proving to be the strongest in the world. The government must promote the game and facilitate the wrestlers. This is an Indian tradition. Wrestling originated in India. Why are we spending more money on foreign games like cricket, badminton, tennis and others?” says Vijay Kumar, a wrestler from Fatehpur Beri village.

No opportunities

Vijay started practising wrestling at the age of 15. Now he is an experienced one. However, he never had a chance to win an international medal. Soon after he turned 22, he started feeling the pressure from his family to hunt for a job. Like many other wrestlers of Fatehpur Beri village in south Delhi, Vijay also decided to join the pubs and bars of Gurgaon as a bouncer.

“It is rare to be a combination of a scholar and a wrestler.  Everyone has to choose between them. Young ones often come to akharas traditionally at the age of 13-15 to make a career. However, it’s hard to contest in international competitions without strong financial support,” Vijay tells Deccan Herald.

Many choose wrestling for a chance to appear in government services exams through the sports quota. But the seats in the sports quota, and especially for wrestling, are few. The vacancies often demand at least graduation with a certain number of marks. The wrestlers do not have enough time for studies, he says.
After spending years of practising wrestling, those who fail to get an international medal begin the search for livelihood.

“Leaving the akhara is the most painful experience in the life of a wrestler. But he has to earn his living. He knows that he will get married one day and will have to leave all his dreams and affection for wrestling for a petty job as a bouncer, security guard or something else,” Vijay says, his frustration showing on his face.

Many youths from Fatehpur Beri village have joined clubs, pubs, bars and discotheques in nearby areas as bouncers. Or they work as personal bodyguards.
The problems start from school and college level. With negligible government’s help and advice from professionals, the wrestling enthusiasts end up looking for a job opening under sports quota.

“We need more matted and covered wrestling arenas. When we started practising wrestling in schooldays in 1972, there was no mat floor available. But when we went to the junior Olympics, we had to fight on mat floors,” says Mahabali Satpal, the coach of star wrestler Sushil Kumar.

Trained coaches

“Apart from a small gym, rope-climbing facility and space for running in every akhara, we need trained coaches. It is not necessary that an Olympic wrestler can become a good coach. Anyone who is in the sport and has a complete knowledge of dietary supplements, exercises and changes in the rules can turn out the best wrestlers. The coach must know what exercise are advised for a young boy who wants to become a wrestler,” he says.

Veterans say the wrestlers and coaches must read modern science journals on sports and dietary supplements.

“When we started practicing wrestling during schooldays, there were no coaches. The seniors guided us the traditional way which is outdated. To become a successful wrestler, we have to adapt and evolve with the new science of sports and food. The dietary plans for wrestlers are the key to success,” says Ajay Kumar, a retired wrestler who has now become a coach.

Now, the modern gymnasiums are replacing the akhara culture. The akharas are facing many problems, and the biggest one of them is the space crunch in Delhi. Some akharas are in the middle of the city and they always face the threat of being shifted to a distant corner of Delhi in the name of development.

“The government must ensure that this rich tradition of India grows day by day. Even if one akhara is closed, it will be a huge loss to the wrestling tradition of Delhi,” says Ajay.

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