From most decorated to the most wanted, this fall from grace leaves Sushil Kumar with his image scarred for life.
True, he has only been accused of murder but the incident that saw a young wrestler murdered at Chhatrasal Stadium has triggered a thorough probe into his past. Something the legendary wrestler may want to wish away, but can’t.
The Chhatrasal Stadium was Sushil’s domain. Nothing moved without his permission. He had nurtured the place but then also come to occupy it as a dominant landlord. He had spent years at the venue, training for his Olympics campaign. His little room, decorated with idols of various gods and goddesses, was his prized possession. You could not miss his kettle, used to make tea to be served to his visitors along with a rich helping of dry fruits. Sushil was a wonderful host.
“Have you seen the stadium,” he asked excitedly when I met him after he had taken over as Officer on Special Duty. His previous stint with the Railways saw him make friends with many grassroots-level wrestlers and now he saw himself in a position to “help.”
We went around the place and it was clear his writ ran large. He was repeatedly briefed on the action taken following his instructions. Action was swift with Sushil in command.
Sushil took pride in the place. “See how clean the place is,” he emphasised. “The stadium is open for sportspersons. I learned so much. And that is why I love that this little room gave me such joy and witnessed my hard work,” he told me.
We had to take some pictures of Sushil working in the gymnasium. He took the request seriously enough to indulge in active exercises rather than just pose with various equipment. When I reminded him not to push himself, his innocent reply floored us, “Jo photo dekhega usko nahi lagna chaahiye maine sirf pose kiya hai. Mere expressions bhi toh aane chaahiye photo mein. (The audience shouldn’t feel I have merely posed, the photo should capture my expressions.)”
For many of us, Sushil was an absolute anti-thesis of what a wrestler was projected as – mean, ferocious, trouble-maker. He was polite to a fault.
Very accommodating as far as his fellow grapplers were concerned. In fact, he was an introvert to most. His inner-circle was impenetrable because he was said to be very possessive of his friends and belongings.
So, when did he develop into a person with a criminal bent of mind?
He had no reason to. He had his ‘gang’ of friends always around him. Work kept him busy when he was not training to compete.
A family to bank upon meant that Sushil was a happy man. But was he?
Was he alone even when surrounded by friends, or sycophants as a wrestling official once remarked?
The company that Sushil kept at the Chhatrasal Stadium was often questioned by those who had followed his career. “He is a tyrant,” a wrestler had remarked.
Yogeshwar Dutt and Bajrang Punia, celebrated wrestlers both, moved to alternate practice venues to pursue their dreams. He looked the other way even as they left the company of the “pehalwanji” they so adored.
In the good old days of Guru Hanuman and Chandgi Ram there was mutual respect for wrestlers from their akharaas. The rivalry was fierce but never transcended the spirit of the sport. Brawls were unheard of as Guru Hanuman and Chandgi Ram closely monitored the behaviour of their pupils and any deviation from the accepted norms was promptly dealt with firmly.
Sushil, in recent times, escaped that scrutiny. It is claimed that he was a law unto himself and had enraged some of his trusted followers, not to forget his opponents.
At his peak, Sushil was hailed as the best ambassador for wrestling.
For long castigated as producers of goons let loose to harass people, wrestling, as a sport, had struggled to win the hearts of the masses, regardless of the fact that it had a huge following in the rural belt. Wrestlers are not goons or recovery agents as is widely projected. A very negligible number amongst them had been used by the politicians for their own vested interests.
“We are not what you think. We are gullible and extremely vulnerable because of lack of education. But we don’t harm people. Please write that,” Sushil had pleaded during the course of one of my conversations with him.
As with most wrestlers, there was nothing intriguing about Sushil when he arrived on the scene as one of the most skilful forces on the mat. He had grand dreams and achieved them too – bronze at the 2008 Olympics and silver four years later. He was the face of Indian wrestling and a huge motivation for the fraternity. Is he now an embarrassment to the wrestling community?
Wrestlers are very transparent sportspersons. Nothing to hide really. They worship the practice arena and bow in obeisance as they greet you.
“Why can’t we shake hands Sushil,” I remember asking him once at the Chhatrasal Stadium. “Sir ji, if I press strongly you may end up with a hairline fracture,” his loud laughter signified his character – jovial and honest.
Opinions are divided on Sushil bringing disrepute to wrestling in general. It is believed that this blow would hurt the fraternity. Not without reason. If Sushil had invited attention of the sports lovers to wrestling by his deeds at the Olympics he may have now earned disapproving eyeballs to his unacceptable act of allegedly participating in a physical assault that resulted in the death of a young wrestler.
Grappling on the mat is different from fighting in the street. Sushil seems to have forgotten that distinction and may have extended the act beyond the permissible ambit of a law-abiding citizen. Law will take its own course as Sushil looks to defend himself with much more than a medal to win since his career and legacy stands on a weak and slippery ground. He has been charged with killing a person. We don’t know if he has. Until then, let us believe that he is innocent until proven guilty.
(Vijay Lokapally is a sports journalist with an experience of 40 years, having worked with The Hindu and Sportstar.)
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