Ever since Sushil Kumar won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, wrestling has, without doubt, grown by leaps and bounds. A series of successes followed, from Yogeshwar Dutt to the Phogat sisters to Sakshi Malik.
What was until then a sport predominantly of the hinterlands received wider recognition as television and newspapers began discovering it. Now, it has reached a stage where Sakshi’s Olympic bronze is expected to do to women’s wrestling what Sushil’s did to wrestling in general.
Even to the uninitiated, the sport’s rich moral, philosophical and mystical heritage — with links first to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through the likes of Hanuman and Bhima, and then to the Mughals and Maratha kings, who were huge patrons of the sport — has always appealed.
Also, independent India’s first individual Olympic medal winner was a wrestler: Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, who bagged a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games. This aided wrestling in securing a prominent place both in the minds of the country’s citizenry as well as in its yet-to-thrive sporting ecosystem.
The Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal , which narrates the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters Geeta Phogat — the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and first Indian women wrestler to qualify for the Olympics — and Babita Kumari, was perhaps the icing on the cake.
That Sakshi and the Phogats came from Haryana, a State infamous for its skewed gender ratio (879 women for every 1,000 men), even boosted the narrative of the sport now being a tool for breaking gender stereotypes. And rightly so.
Battle of perception
But what has completely been left unexplored is the allure of women’s wrestling as a sport in itself. This is seen in the fact that men’s freestyle wrestling was introduced at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904 but it took a whole century for the women’s competition to be included. In 2013, when wrestling was dropped from the Olympic programme initially before being reinstated, one of the prime reasons was that it discriminated against women athletes by giving them fewer medal opportunities.
Wrestling, in general, has had to fight a battle of perception. As a combat sport it has often been cannibalised. Cruder as it seems than most other disciplines with a strong emphasis on physicality, wrestling is seen as the ultimate symbol of masculinity; something which glorifies violence. Rarely is it considered as an art form in which physical skills are often honed over years.
So, if a woman tries to stake an equal claim to the sport, it is often seen as an attempt by her to prove that she is “masculine” enough. After all, didn’t Geeta have to first defeat the boys in her area to gain legitimacy as a capable wrestler?
“With heavyweight wrestling, people are expecting this Helga type of woman, obese and going there on the mat to try to smash people’s heads,” Adeline Gray, a three-time World Champion from the U.S., told ESPN. “It’s so much more than that — the weight is really low, so it’s about technique. It’s skill, strength, power and executing that in a very precise way.”
She said: “I would hear, years later, ‘Yeah, that guy was afraid of you in high school.’ Why? I’m nice! I just don’t understand where that came from. It’s like saying a boxer just goes around hitting people all the time. I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never hit anybody. I never challenged anyone at a party. So I don't know why that fear exists: ‘Oh, she can beat me up if she wanted to!’ Yeah, but... I don’t really fight people.”
Robert L. Simon, in his book Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport , raises an important question with respect to the kind of stigma that plagues contact sports. “The key ethical question in fair competition may be whether the use of force takes advantage of an opponent’s physical vulnerability,” he asks.
But acts of violence on a sporting field don’t necessarily render the sport violent. In wrestling, athletes do have the capacity and opportunity to inflict severe harm on their opponents. They can dislocate limbs and break fingers. However, they are taught to not exert such physical force and confine their moves to legitimate ones.
“Wrestling is safe,” said Adeline. “I love that it’s head to head and it truly tests us. But there is no need to worry that someone is going to get hit in the face. In wrestling, you’re not going to get hit in the head.”
The very fact that this stigma has been allowed to remain so deeply entrenched is largely because those who participate in sports perceived as “violent” are rarely asked to express what draws them to these sports and to describe their experiences on the playing field.
Surely one can’t imagine every fan and player saying, for example, “I love wrestling so much because it breaks gender stereotypes.” Even for Mahavir Phogat, women’s emancipation was the last thing on his mind. Didn’t it take a while for him understand that a gold medal was a gold medal irrespective of who won it — a boy or a girl?
“Ever since we won an international medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, women have started to recognise the medal potential in the sport,” said Vinesh Phogat, gold medallist in the 2014 Glasgow Games. “The Olympic medal also added to the excitement. But wrestling allows women to express their level of skills and strength. So it’s a huge attraction. Also, with the league coming in and corporates like JSW investing in sport, women have started to recognise wrestling as a sustainable career option.”
Sport helps in sensitising and uniting society, and this is something to be valued. However, social outcomes cannot always explain why a person took to a sport or her passion for it. The stories of Geeta, Babita, Vinesh and Adeline will certainly help in creating a more equal society. But they are often satisfying ends to what at the outset was driven by pure love of sport and a bit more.