Sushil kumar, probably India’s greatest living sportsperson, an absconder carrying a prize of Rs1 lakh for information leading to his arrest, must make us examine notions of heroes and hero-worship, of idols and fallen idols, and the idea of a sportsperson as a soldier of the nation.
Flight is usually considered a sign of guilt — is India’s greatest sportsperson a murderer or an accomplice in murder? When his bail application was heard by a Delhi court, the public prosecutor disclosed that there is “electronic evidence” of Sushil “with a stick and hitting” during the brawl that left one young man dead. If this evidence does exist, it would provide a sad and depressing addendum to the champion’s exploits on the wrestling mat.
Sushil, a two-time Olympics medal-winner — an unprecedented feat for an Indian in individual sport — and a one-time world champion, had animal strength and speed that baffled the eye and made him such a dangerous fighter. His two Olympics medals, a bronze and a silver, gave Indians something to cheer about in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. He was lauded and lionised and showered with money and honour. The Haryana government offered to make him a Deputy Superintendent of its police force — an upholder of law and justice. He seemed fit for the job. After winning medals, he spoke noble words that evoked the greatest ideals of India’s sanskriti — reverence for the elders, love for dharma and the nation, willingness to sacrifice everything for the National Flag. Who wouldn’t want such a cop?
But, as we’ve seen, words are often nothing more than expression of wishful thinking — the wish to do great deeds for the people and the nation.
Sushil didn’t take up the Haryana Police offer — which is just as well because, over the years, he got increasingly involved in unsavoury controversies. He was at the top of his game in 2008-12; interestingly, his decline on the mat coincided with distractions from wrestling — there were great economic rewards for him, and he got involved in businesses and administration of sport. He never really won a world-class medal after the 2012 Olympics — the Commonwealth Games wrestling is not a top-drawer event — and he skipped the Asian Games in 2014 and lost in the first round in 2018.
In 2017, he was crowned the national champion in the 74kg category in Indore — but it was a farce. In the quarterfinal, the only movement that his opponent, Parveen, made towards Sushil was to touch his feet — he simply conceded the bout. In the semifinals, Sachin Rathi of Uttar Pradesh did the same. In the final, Parveen Rana gave him a walkover, citing a thigh injury.
The walkovers were explained by some as a sign of respect younger wrestlers have for the legend that Sushil is; but there also was a gangster-type menace that emanated from Sushil and his acolytes. In late 2017, for a trial to pick up the 74kg wrestler for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Parveen Rana faced Sushil Kumar in Delhi. This time Rana did not concede the bout but decided to fight hard — he lost an ill-tempered bout, and later he and his brother were attacked by Sushil’s supporters. A criminal case was filed against Sushil, but it went nowhere.
In short, the behaviour of Sushil or his followers was thuggish, and it remained unchecked and unpunished. His stature as a wrestling legend seemed to provide him immunity against legal action. There are systemic issues here — his offences could be termed minor misdemeanours in a justice system struggling with a massive number of much more serious cases. Sushil’s achievements opened doors for him, too — he was appointed an Officer on Special Duty by the Delhi government and elected president of the School Games Federation. He is also employed with the Railways. Clearly, he has his fingers in too many pies and is no longer a simple lover of national honour and National Flag that he may have been once.
When Vijender Kumar beat a Chinese opponent, Zulpikar Maimaitiali, in 2017, the most memorable reaction came from Amitabh Bachchan, who wrote on Twitter: “Jeet gaye!! Bharat ne Cheen ko de maara!! Vijendra beats China opponent to keep his title!! A slugfest but WE won!” This is not a gleeful child but a man who himself is a superstar, at the ripe old age of 75. Sportspersons often evoke such reactions; they give us a sense of pride which all people and all nations need — “we’re not weaklings!” Sushil, a champion in a primeval, martial sport, fed that sense of pride among us, making us blind to the dark side of his personality.
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