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Date
03 Dec 2018
Tags
Olympic News, India, Wrestling
Olympic Channel

The Indian wrestling club prepping stars for Olympic success

In its original documentary “Can’t Stay Down”, the Olympic Channel takes us behind the scenes at Hanuman Akhara, India’s oldest and most prestigious wrestling club, where dreams of Olympic glory are made and realised.

 

Founded in 1928 by Guru Hanumanji, the Hanuman Akhara is one of the world’s oldest wrestling clubs and is the leading club on the Indian subcontinent. Located in Shakti Nagar on the outskirts of the capital city, Delhi, the akhara (which means training centre in Hindi) is both a school of life and a factory of champions. Graduates of the club have scooped numerous titles and trophies at national and international level. Several have gone on to compete at the Olympic Games. Young wrestlers from throughout India – some barely in their teens – come to live and train at the akhara in the hope of going on to achieve international glory. 

Others, such as Rajiv Tomar, senior wrestler at the Hanuman Akhara, are now in their thirties. Tomar competed at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, and he believes that the country’s akharas provide talented youngsters with the chance to learn from more experienced wrestlers, known as pehelwanji. “I’ve been training at this akhara since I was 25, and the time has flown by,” reflects the 37-year-old. 

“All over the world, wrestling is practised on the mat, but in an akhara you start off in the mud. A wrestler is born in the akhara mud pit. Wrestling on mud is an ancient tradition - no matter how accomplished the wrestler, he learns all his moves on mud. There are akharas in almost every village. Nowhere else will you see the techniques and moves that we learn in the akhara.”

Wrestlers from the akharas aim to make a name for themselves at local wrestling tournaments known as dangals, which attract huge crowds. “In India, we associate wrestling with dangals, and a dangal is always fought in mud,” explains Naveen Mor, another former national champion and graduate of the Hanuman Akhara. “To win you need both strength and intelligence, because in 100th of a second you need to anticipate which technique your opponent will use and how to counter it.”

Kakran fights her corner
The Hanuman Akhara is also a conveyor belt for successful female wrestlers, for whom the sport is not just a passion, but also a means to improve their chances in life. Among them is Divya Kakran, who at just 17 is already regarded as a true phenomenon of the sport. She regularly competes against boys her own age and weight in the dangals, and invariably gets the better of them. “They say this sport is for boys. Or they ask me, if I get injured and covered in bruises who will want to marry me? 

“My father says I shouldn’t worry about that now, and should focus on becoming someone first,” she adds. “I often wonder what I would have done if I’d not become a wrestler. My life would have been wasted.” 

Kakran’s victories have already brought her fame and no little fortune, which has enabled her to provide her family with financial security.

Indian wrestling success on the Olympic stage
Aside from hockey (which yielded 11 Olympic medals, including three golds between 1928 and 1980) and shooting (which produced India’s only other Olympic gold courtesy of Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008), it is in wrestling where India has truly shone on the Olympic stage. 

Sushil Kumar remains India’s only double individual Olympic medallist, having won bronze in 2008 and silver at London 2012 in the 66kg weight class. The Delhi-born star also won world and Asian titles in 2010, as well as three Commonwealth Games crowns.

London 2012 also saw Yogeshwar Dutt claim a bronze medal in the men’s 60kg category. Dutt is another star of the Indian sport, having twice won gold at the Commonwealth Games and another two titles at the Asian Championships.

Meanwhile, women’s freestyle wrestling has taken massive strides forward in India since the 1990s, spearheaded by coach Mahavir Singh Phogat. His daughter, Geeta Phogat, became India’s first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympic Games, in 2012, two years after becoming the first woman from her country to win a wrestling gold at the Commonwealth Games, competing in the 55kg class.

Following in her slipstream, Sakshi Malik made history when she won bronze in the 58kg weight division at Rio 2016, becoming the first Indian woman to feature on a wrestling podium at the Olympic Games. It remains to see whether Divya Kakran and her contemporaries can continue the momentum and deliver further Olympic success in the years to come.
 
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