After winning an unexpected bronze in the Beijing Games, Sushil Kumar is back to work. Avishek Mukherjee chats up the wrestler on life after the Olympics
It has been a great year for you!
Yes indeed it has been a great year for me. At the start of the year I never thought it would end like this. For me the Olympic medal was the best present I could have given myself and having done it this year, it will be the most memorable moment in my life. I am also grateful to Hanumanji and my coach Mahabali Satpal Ji, without whom this wouldn’t have been possible.
How much has life changed after winning the Olympic medal?
Life has completely changed after winning the medal as it has brought fame and money with it. But in another way it has made things a bit tough too as balancing fame and money, along with my game is a tough task.
Are you happy with the recognition that you got?
I am happy that with my medal the sport has got recognition that was due for some time. Now people will realise that wrestling, which has been a traditional Indian sport, can be big in the country. Wrestlers don’t come from affluent families and are looked down as some alien elements. We are mistaken as street fighters. But it is a game, which teaches you a lot; more importantly, it makes you a disciplined human being. I think the perception towards wrestlers is going to change with my medal.
Do you think there is enough space for other sports to grow, especially Olympic sports, in a country, which is so obsessed with cricket?
Why not? Come and see the huge turn out during wrestling nationals. It is only in our mindset that we think that other sports except cricket can’t grow in our country. We have to promote other sports and the time is now ripe to do it.
Did you get some endorsements?
I got quiet a few offers for endorsing products. Did an ad for a tractor company and also appeared on the cover page of a fashion magazine, that’s all. They bring some good money but I don’t want to get into all those things. My primary job is to perform as a wrestler and not posing in front of the arc lights. If I start endorsing products my game will suffer and my form can also go down. I consider these things as distractions and try to keep away from them and leave it to my coach Satpal ji to take the final call.
In the nationals last month you won the gold medal. How important was it for you after winning an Olympic medal?
For me the Olympic medal was a thing of the past after two days of arriving in India. After taking two days rest it was business as usual. I started practice as I did before going to the Olympics. And as a sportsperson, any medal that I win is important. So winning the national title after an Olympic medal was more important in itself. In the nationals, the pressure was on me, because others had nothing to lose but I had lot at stake. So winning it was a great relief. If I had failed, then people would have started saying that Sushil has become complacent. For me there is no room for complacency. More so to avoid people from saying anything about my dedication, the gold was more important for me.
What is you target next year?
I don’t set targets. I take things as they come. But obviously every Indian athlete is eyeing the 2010 Commonwealth Games. So next year, I have to keep up my form and have to perform well in every tournament. The government has some plans and hopefully we will have some overseas camps as well. So I am looking forward to getting more exposure and improve my technique.
Do you think the government is doing enough for sports?
See we are in a very complicated situation. We plan out things but fail to apply them. It will be unfair on our part to blame the government for each and every thing. This year they have awarded all the wrestlers who have won medals in international events. So they are trying to improve things. But one can say that things should be well planned. The government has now started its plan to train sportspersons for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They are spending lot of money for it and it should be done in a planned way and at the end of the day the federation should be held accountable for the results. So we all have to take responsibilities.
Any plan to promote wrestling?
AFTER a year that saw the world of tennis go flipping through the prism of predictability, its time again to hit the court, as the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open, gets ready to unfold from January 19. The crème de la crème of world tennis will battle it out Down Under.
For Rafael Nadal 2008 was the year when he overcame the tag of being the challenger and overtook the throne from Swiss Roger Federer. He won the French Open, again, beat Federer to the Wimbledon crown and also got himself an Olympic gold medal. This was the year when Rafa made his way from among a crowd of pretenders and contenders, for Federer’s crown, and took it away. He proved it to one and all that his game was not just about clay. The first Slam of the year will mean a lot to the current World No.1 as not only a winning start to the year augurs well, but also because the Spaniard is yet to show any thunder Down Under.
Roger Federer started 2008 with his sights firmly on Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles. But by the time the tennis year reached its last summit, the US Open, the Swiss master was still hanging at a tally of 12 Grand Slams. The threat of him ending the year without winning a single major tournament was looming, but Federer won at the Flushing Meadows and won a doubles’ gold medal at the Beijing Games. But in general it was a year of massive disappointments for Roger. He lost at the Australian Open, lost at the French Open, again, and the biggest blow was losing the Wimbledon title in a epic match to Nadal. It was at the Australian Open last year that the world saw cracks in Roger’s technique, he called it a stomach bug, but the below par show throughout the year told a different story. This time, still the strongest contender for the No.1 spot will have to come up with the goods right from the start.
There are other players, too, who can deliver. Defending champion Novak Djokovic has beaten the best and has showed that there is more to him than the gimmicks. Another very strong contender will be Briton Andy Murray. Clearly after Tim Henman, Murray has raised hopes of a nation as they search for their Grand Slam winner. Murray has cut on the erratic play and turned into the ideal pro. There are others like Tsonga, James Blake, Aussie Lyeton Hewitt, Marat Safin et all. Not to forget Giles Simon, the Frenchman who got the better of Nadal in Qatar.
In the women’s section the competition is stiffer than last year. World No.1 Jelena Jankovic has been in top form, but a new year and new challenges mean she will have to be in top gear to ward off the challengers. Meanwhile, defending champion Maria Sharapova will be looking forward to the event as she lost her way somewhere between the year in ’08. She beat Ana Ivanovic in the final last year but then fizzed out in the rest of the year. Then there are the Williams sisters. Their strength is still unmatched and they are always unpleasant to have as a first round opponent. Other contenders will include Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The tried and tested Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza will once again head India’s charge. Leander will partner Lukas Dlouhy in doubles, while Bhupathi will be with Mark Knowles. Bhupathi is also expected to pair with Sania for the mixed doubles as the pair had made it to the final last year. The new wonderboy Somdev Devvarman is set to try and make his way to the main draw via the qualifiers. Going by his game at the recently-concluded Chennai Open, he is someone all tennis buffs will be watching out for. He, along with a fully fit Sania, will provide some hope to the Indian challenge in the singles format, something of a rarity at a Grand Slam
MARLENE Negrene stood on the first tee of Havana’s golf club, driver in hand and looking forward to a pleasurable nine holes to be followed perhaps by a English at Havana’s prestigious university. So fond is Negrene of Havana’s only golf course that she quit her university job to become the club’s caddy master, an unusual career move even by Cuban standards. "The pay is about the same but the hours are better," she said. Strict government wage control keeps heart surgeons and street-sweepers on similar salaries, of about $20 to $40 a month. Caddies cost $5 for a round, making more money than most Cubans.
Founded by British expatriates as the Rovers Athletic Club in the 1920s, it is Havana’s sole surviving golf course. At the height of the Cold War, it was an ideal watering-hole and listening-post for diplomats and spies to pick up gossip.
The return of Cuba’s golfing glory days remains a gleam in the eyes of the mostly British and Canadian investors, who have been encouraged by the government of Raul Castro to build luxury resorts. Tourism in Cuba is run by the military and Raul Castro, who ran the country’s defence forces before becoming Cuba’s President, is said to have endorsed more than a dozen upscale golf projects.
From the outset of the revolution, Fidel Castro and his allies set about destroying Cuba’s legacy of fine golf courses, which had catered to the gangsters and gamblers. With the exception of Rovers Athletic, all of Cuba’s golf clubs were occupied by the military. But in late 1962, shortly after the missile crisis threatened to engulf the world, Fidel Castro made a grand gesture aimed at mollifying US public opinion. He invited his fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara for a game of golf intending to send a signal of friendship to President John Kennedy. Fidel and Che showed up in military fatigues and boots with photographers and reporters in tow. They stomped around Cuba’s historic course at Colinas de Villareal. Che had worked as a caddy in his native Argentina .
Cuban journalist Jose Lorenzo Fuentes covered the game. Now in exile in Florida, he told The Wall Street Journal: "Since neither man liked to lose and the game became intensely competitive." Fuentes wrote for the communist party daily Granma that Fidel had lost. The next day he was sacked and fled the country.
It was all downhill for golf after that ill-fated game. President Kennedy, the best golfer to occupy the White House, did not take up the offer. Instead, he tightened the already tough economic blockade, which, still remain in force. Fidel ordered military barracks to be built on most courses. Somehow Rovers Athletic hung on for 20 more years.
Then in April 1980 Fidel announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was free to do so. Thousands of Cubans poured into the the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum. It was beginning of the end for Rovers Athletic, because many who fled were Cuban members. The Cuban authorities nationalised the club.
That’s how things have remained for the past 28 years and the club, tucked in the middle of an industrial zone on the way to the airport, remains a relic of old times.