After two humiliating defeats, the return of Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia without a medal at the Asian Games has invited criticisms against him from all corners of the country, especially because of his direct entry into the tournament.
Notably, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat had got exemptions from trial and a direct entry to the Asian Games which was challenged in the Delhi High Court in July by wrestlers Antim Panghal and Sujeet Kalkal.
However, the Delhi HC upheld their direct entry on account of a Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) rule that says, "Selection Committee will have the discretion to select the iconic players without trials provided recommendation by Chief Coach."
Vinesh Phogat could not participate in the Asian Games due to injury and hence, Antim Panghal, who won the trials, got a chance. She then won a bronze medal in the women's 53-kg category by defeating Mongolian Bolortuya.
On the other hand, Bajrang Punia managed to reach the semifinals by winning two bouts against Ronil Tubog of the Philippines and Alibegov of Bahrain.
However, he lost to Iran’s Amouzadkhalili by 8-1 in the semifinals and appeared clueless against the 2022 world champion. But the worse was yet to come.
In the bronze medal repechage encounter, Kaiki Yamaguchi of Japan left no room for opportunity, securing a decisive victory over the Indian with a substantial 10-point margin.
In a defeated posture, Bajrang rested flat on his stomach, his head buried in his hands, as Yamaguchi asserted dominance over the match until the referee put Bajrang out of his misery.
While Bajrang is a four-time World Championship medalist, a Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist and a former Asian Champion, he appeared fully unprepared in this tournament.
Notably, last week, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar too had questioned Bajrang Punia’s direct entry, while Vishal Kaliraman, who had qualified in the trials, was put in stand-by post.
Earlier too, in September, before the onset of the Asian Games, family members and friends of Kaliraman had protested against Punia's selection. Kaliraman had won all five matches in the 65-kg category trials.
Meanwhile, another wrestler, Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Ravi Dahiya turned down the offer of a direct qualification, instead he opted for trials. However, due to injury in the right knee, he lost the trials and couldn't get selected.
Another wrestler, Deepak Punia, who missed Tokyo Olympics bronze by a narrow margin and won silver in the 2019 World Championship, too supported the decision of trials and went to the Asian Games after winning trials in the 86-kg category.
He now has to compete against Iranian Hasan Yazdani for a gold medal. He defeated Uzbekistan's Javrail Shapiev in a tough fight by 4-3 in the semifinals.
Apart from the direct entry, Bajrang Punia is being criticised for spearheading the wrestlers protests and not paying attention to his preparation in the past few months.
But one should note that all three wrestlers had initially protested against WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. However, Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahi chose the way of trials unlike Bajrang Punia.
Nishtha Anushree is Senior Sub-editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @nishthaanushree.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!