Aabhas Sharma, Business Standard
A small village 40 km from Delhi, big on heart and muscle, is united in its mission
Camera nahin laaye?” asks the security guard at the main gate of Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Devi Lal Sports Centre in Sonepat district, about 40 km from Delhi.
News channels have been thronging this mecca of Indian wrestling in the last few days and so the security guard is a bit surprised to see a journalist sans a camera, tripod and the works. He is aware that the Commonwealth Games are on and that wrestlers from nearby villages have achieved something but isn’t surprised. “Every kid here wants to become a wrestler,” he says matter-of-factly. This SAI centre has become the talking point after the CWG as this is where the Indian wrestlers trained before their record haul of 19 medals out of the 21 on offer.
Mukesh Kumar, director of the centre, says that the nearby villages have become the cradle of Indian wrestling. “Wrestling is more than a sport here. It’s about passion and honour and the akharas are virtual breeding grounds,” he says.
Almost every village in Sonepat district has an akhara which is its pride. Anil Kumar, who won the gold medal in the 96kg category hails from nearby Raipur , where his brother Balwant Kumar, a former national level wrestler, runs an akhara. Balwant has seen how children's attitude towards wrestling has changed in the last few years. “We used to wrestle in the mud and had little idea about the technicalities,” he says. All that has changed now.
Just a few kilometres away from the Centre is the Chauhan-Joshi village, where a huge crowd has gathered as budding wrestlers grapple for glory. It is almost a daily ritual here. Jagminder Singh, coach of the Indian freestyle wrestlers explains how the last two years have brought a sea change in these villages. “Every akhara now has a mat and wrestlers are keen to make the step of kushti being a recreational activity,” says Singh. Needless to say it is the 27-year-old Sushil Kumar who is their idol. “I want to be the next Sushil Kumar,” says Chhote Singh, an eight-year-old boy from Shahpur village.
It’s not hero worship alone which is inspiring little kids in Sonepat to become wrestling champions. The residents of these villages do all they can to make sure that a wrestler doesn’t face any problems. Regular supplies of milk, ghee and badam from villagers are a common ritual. After all, diet is what determines the weight and quality of a pehalwan.
There are no mad celebrations in Sonepat district and the nearby village. There is a sense of pride but it’s like people here expected such a medal haul. “We have seen how hard our wrestlers had worked for the CWG,” says Kumar of SAI.
Sonepat’s Yogeshwar Dutt, who won the gold medal in the 60kg category recalls the days before the CWG. “We toiled hard here at the Centre and trained with our local wrestler friends,” he says dedicating his medal to the SAI centre and his wrestler friends.
Realising the potential that lies in the wrestlers, villages have started spending on mats and making sure that kids don’t wrestle in mud alone. Ramesh Kumar, from Purkhas village in Sonepat,who won the bronze medal at last year’s World Wrestling Championships says that they all owe it to the residents of the villages they live in. When he won the bronze medal last year, it was like a festival in his village.
A lot of credit should be given to the SAI training centre. Many of the wrestlers checked into the CWG village but soon moved back to the familiarity of the Centre. The centre has two Olympic-size wrestling mats, a gymnasium and a running track. The living quarters of the wrestlers are air-conditioned and the Centre makes sure that the wrestlers have whatever they need.
The mess authorities are under strict orders to make sure that the wrestlers eat all the right stuff. The centre, created at a cost of Rs 30 lakh, had run into troubled waters as well when there were leaking roofs but Kumar brushes these off as trifles and is happy to bask in the glory of Sonepat district. As Dutt puts it, “Being a pehalwan has become more than a statement of machoism. It is a matter of national pride and glory.” If wrestling as a sport in India has grown in the last few years, Sonepat and its nearby villages have surely played a very big role in that.