Sushil Kumar at the wrestling trials for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, New Delhi (Photo: Raul Irani)
AS FAR AS CAUTIONARY tales go, the fall of Icarus is such a cliché that it is more likely to prompt an eyeroll response than impart any actual learning. But the reason why this Greek myth endures is because sometimes only the oldest of stories can really sum up a new development. To observers of the sport, the fall of wrestler Sushil Kumar, India’s only two-time Olympic medallist, may have been a long time coming, but no one could have predicted just how steep it would be.
On May 23rd, the man decorated with some of India’s highest civilian honours was arrested by Delhi Police in the murder case of another wrestler, Sagar Rana. At the peak of his career, Kumar was felicitated by different state governments with cash rewards that ran into crores. When he was arrested, he had a bounty of Rs 1 lakh on his head, as announced by the police. From bullying both on and off the mat, to involvement with the mafia, trading favours with gangs, Kumar’s alleged notoriety was in direct proportion to his achievements in the arena. Along with his father-in-law and coach Satpal Singh, Kumar ran Chhatrasal Stadium, once the breeding ground of India’s best wrestlers, like his personal fiefdom. From Parveen Rana to fellow Olympian Yogeshwar Dutt, Kumar’s recent past is littered with run-ins with his juniors whom he was meant to mentor.
Kumar is not the first athlete, nor will he be the last, to see such a spectacular fall from grace. Modern history is replete with examples of sporting legends who scripted their own fall, be it OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson or Oscar Pistorius. Every fallen hero’s story charts the same trajectory: a sustained rise to the top fuelled by talent and a gruelling dedication, both physical as well as mental. Everyone has ambition, but the superstar athlete is powered by something stronger than that—the desire for invincibility. The problem, seemingly, begins when the individual buys into this very myth. In sport, this is often referred to as the “God complex”.
Sport superstardom is a curious mix of arrogance and deep-rooted insecurity. An athlete must be conceited enough to believe he is the best in the world; otherwise, how would he become the best in the world? But there is also always the fear of losing that winning streak—the worry that someone somewhere is going to outrun you. In India, a country starved for far too long of individual sporting icons save in cricket, every victory is greeted with euphoria. We are very quick to place our sporting stars, especially those who manage to emerge from the colossal shadow of international cricket casts, on a pedestal. We marvel at their stories only because we know it has a happy ending. We don’t care about the scores of others who have been left behind.
“Success has many fathers, and it will bring you many friends and many fans. When you are a nobody who has spent the bulk of his life travelling in buses to get to training sessions and then you become somebody who is adored everywhere he goes, and you do go places, it is very difficult to hold on to who you were before all this happened,” says boxer Akhil Kumar. An Arjuna Award winner, Akhil has won medals in several championships, including the Commonwealth Games, though an Olympic victory eluded him. Today, he is ACP Traffic, Gurugram, the uniform his biggest source of pride. “Even I was dazzled by the bright lights of success. I did music videos, participated in shows, been at the centre of all the attention. But I also never quite felt like a star. In my time, the passion for cricket was all consuming even when others were winning laurels.” What about values, both inherited and thrust upon a sportsman? “It is very important for you to manage your arrogance. Why is Sachin Tendulkar who he is? Because he controls his aggression. It is only for the field. Every day, you must remind yourself to stay grounded. Every day, you need to be surrounded by people who knew you before you became this star,” he says. Akhil says he still has the same four friends today as he did when he was just a young boxer in training.
DR CHAITANYA SRIDHAR, lead sport psychologist, hasn’t worked with Akhil but she would approve of his choice of friends. After all, that is what she tells all the young cricketers she works with: to have friends beyond the sport. “The athlete comes to us fully formed as a success story. But where were we for all those years when they were struggling?” Sridhar feels we all bear collective responsibility for Kumar’s story, be it society or the system. “We need young athletes to know stories of not just success, but also of those who tried and didn’t always make it. You need a system that nurtures them, be it in the form of supportive seniors or counselling.” Sridhar shares stories of young cricketers—she doesn’t take any names—who worry about crowd reactions to dropped catches. She talks about how she must remind many about why they got into it in the first place; for the sheer joy of playing, and how that gets overshadowed once success comes calling. “Everyone should enjoy the attention that comes with success. But we must not confuse the add-ons with the real deal.”
Boxer Vijender Singh agrees with Sridhar’s assessment. An Olympian, Singh found himself dabbling with just about everything, from Bollywood to politics in the wake of his stupendous success. In his own words, it was tough for him to say no. Most of the times, he had no idea also about the commitments being made at his end or money being made in his name, he now says. “I used to be very conscious about the fact that I couldn’t speak Hindi or English. That I had a heavy accent even in Punjabi. I was arrogant, yet insecure at the same time.” Singh says he regrets a lot of his actions in the years following his success. He doesn’t refer to it, but he is probably alluding to a drug scandal in 2012 wherein it was alleged that he took heroin. Singh denied the charges but also refused to give samples for testing. In 2013, he was given an all-clear by the National Anti-Doping Agency. “Akal thokar khaane se aati hai (You learn when you fall).” Singh has turned professional since. He has also made peace with who he is and while he peppers his conversation with English, he says he no longer associates it with his self-esteem. Quite like Akhil, he too holds forth on the importance of “values”, which in his case translated into the ability to say no. “It isn’t easy. You think it is your due, you want to claim it all as a reward for the hard work and sweat you have put in. But for the sake of that hard work, you need to know when to step back.”
It isn’t easy to get hold of people associated with Sushil Kumar right now. People don’t want to talk or go beyond the most banal of statements. Almost everyone denies knowing the extent of his involvement with criminal elements though Kumar’s behaviour, be it allegedly bullying competition or even going to the extent of harming their careers, was being observed and even reported upon. Everyone refers to him as a soft-spoken man who was seemingly dedicated to the sport but there are also stories of fully loaded guns and an entourage that increasingly consisted of louts with allegiances to gangs. His desire to exercise complete control over the Delhi wrestling circuit led to run-ins with other wrestlers over the years, almost all of whom have chosen to move away from Chhatrasal, once considered to be the hallowed ground for the sport, thanks to Kumar.
It is a tragic story for the sport because Kumar was singlehandedly responsible for ridding wrestling of the stigma it has long come to be associated with. Most wrestlers don’t end up as medal winners. They are drafted into jobs that only require muscle mass—bodyguards, henchmen, bouncers. There has always been a whiff of undesirability around wrestling, never mind its illustrious history in the country or the discipline the sport demands. But Sushil changed all of that. He made it possible for akharas to dream of the glory days once again and for young men to consider it as a lucrative career option. Hence, it is all the more befuddling to followers of the sport that he chose to fall prey to its worst cliché.
“Integrity, honesty, following the rules, learning to win, learning to lose, hard work, determination, setting up a goal, pursuing that goal,” Abhinav Bindra is listing the values he associates with being a sportsperson and an Olympian. For him, it is impossible to separate sport from these values, otherwise, “it’s just a competition”. For Bindra, being a sportsperson is to be the best version of oneself, both on and off the field, though he acknowledges just how difficult the latter can be. “Self-identification of an athlete cannot be determined by their ranking, but most sporting ecosystems are hungry. We develop as athletes and not as human beings. And when the athletic life ends, we find we have to start from scratch.” Bindra says he prepared himself for his transition out of sports for three years before it happened. There was a distinct absence of regret when he did hang up his boots.
At their peak, a sportsperson can bring a stadium filled with thousands to their feet, chanting his/her name. Everything else in life is then about trying to capture the high of that moment and nothing really comes close to it. “It is the hardest thing for an athlete to deal with, the vanishing of their pedestal,” a long-time observer of Indian sport says. In India, it is even tougher because you are one amongst a handful. “In the US, there is always a champion bigger than you. In India, our handful of Olympians coast on their success for far longer. But eventually, the spotlight does fade away. A good sporting association will teach athletes about life after sport. There will be a team that will ensure you are ready for the day when it arrives. Sushil did not have that. He clearly felt that this success could be parlayed into bigger things.”
Most Indian sport associations are cash-strapped and riddled with cronyism. The idea that past idols could serve as mentors, even if it is just for inspiration for a whole generation of new athletes, has never been explored fully. Akhil feels the younger generation could benefit so much by one-on-one interactions with people like Bindra or even Tendulkar. “Young sportsmen and women need an idol to model themselves on, like everyone else. But their idols must be unimpeachable, people with extraordinary conduct, both on and off the field. If someone like Abhinav Bindra talks to you about preparation, pitfalls, you listen. Sushil commanded the same respect, but it had been steadily eroding since 2012.”
In recent years, foundations like GoSport and Olympic Gold Quest have come up that help upcoming young Indian athletes, supplementing the efforts of the government. These associations are working towards providing support to their athletes, which is not just financial and physical but also emotional. It takes a village to build a champion and it also takes a whole community to keep them together so that they continue being winners, both on and off the field.