The 2023 Asian Games wrestling trials concluded on Sunday, with India's contingent decided.
The doubt is all down to the exemption from trials granted to Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia, with Antim Panghal and Vishal Kaliraman, the winners of the 53 kg women's freestyle and 65 kg men's freestyle trials, placed as stand-bys. The two have already announced their intention to contest the exemption in the Supreme Court.
Here are the headline points:
Antim and Vishal miss out despite winning
Antim had little trouble winning the 53 kg trials yet, as things stand, she will not be boarding the plane to Hangzhou. "I won the trial fair and square. Why should I be the standby player...The one who did not compete should be a standby player in 53kg. My petition has been dismissed but I won't stop, I will keep fighting, we will move the Supreme Court," said Antim after her victory.
Antim's recent form (winning gold in the U-20 Worlds and silver in the 2023 Asian Championships) has been fairly impressive and, in the trials for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, she ran Vinesh close in their bout (a 3-0 lead before losing 3-3).
"If she keeps getting direct entries like this, how will one know how good we are? We will keep trying. My coach will decide what we are going to do next but the fight will continue. What's the point of me winning three bouts? I know she is pretty good and has many medals but she must fight against us in the trials."
The last time Vinesh did fight against Antim in trials was for the 2022 World Championships, where Vinesh won 7-0. However, that was close to a year ago and 19-year-old Antim can claim to have improved in the interim.
Vishal Kaliraman's case isn't as strong. The 25-year-old has had a fairly middling career internationally (Silver in the 2018 Jr. Asian Championships, 5th in the 2023 Zagreb Open) and would be hard-pressed to make the case that he'd beat Bajrang in a singular bout.
Yet, after defeating Rohit in the 65kg final (9-3), Vishal was in a bullish mood, claiming "I just wanted to win the trial today. Even if Bajrang was here today, I would have won, I was determined to win. We respect him for his achievements but what they are doing may destroy the careers of junior players. We will fight this, if we have to go to Supreme Court, we will go. We have been training for 15 years now."
Sujeet, who had joined Antim in the High Court petition, missed out in the quarterfinals of the 65 kg trials itself, with the U-20 Worlds bronze medallist losing out to Rohit.
Ravi Kumar Dahiya's season-ender
Ravi Dahiya, perhaps unintentionally, became the poster boy for those opposing exemptions given to Vinesh and Bajrang. As a silver medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, he was technically in line to receive the exemption too but chose to fight anyway. Having just recovered from ACL and MCL tears in his knee, Ravi has reportedly worsened his condition in his loss to Atish Todkar in the trials and thus ended his season. It might result in him losing his shot at the 2024 Paris Olympics (although the WFI does have trials for those too).
Ravi now faces a long spell on the sidelines, where he may watch the hugely talented Aman Sehrawat stake his claim in the Asian Games and World Championships. The 19-year-old was already coming for Ravi's crown, and fate (or foolhardiness) may have worked in his favour.
The question of fairness amidst shocks aplenty
Before the trials, Anshu Malik and Sakshi Malik had said that exemptions were unfair and an obstacle for junior wrestlers. Sakshi (who had been experiencing a resurgence after getting past her trials nemesis Sonam Malik last year) couldn't take part in the trials and opted against receiving an exemption.
Worlds silver medallist Anshu, meanwhile, lost out in the opening round of the 57kg category in what was effectively a final against Worlds bronze medallist Sarita Mor, who was then stunned by Mansi Ahlawat (9-6) - after which 22-year-old Mansi defeated 20-year-old Sito in the final.
The wealth of talent in the 57kg category is the best argument in favour of trials as it gives lesser-known names a fair shot at glory. To have two worlds medallists miss the Asian Games is quite extraordinary, although it does question just how meritorious a single-day trial contest is - especially if a normally consistent wrestler has a few bad seconds on the mat.
Nisha Dahiya (68 kg), fresh off a bronze at the 2023 Asian C'ships and two-time gold medallist at the Asian Championships, Divya Kakran (jumping from 68 kg to 76 kg), also missed out, simply underlining the level of competition within these trials.
It does beg the question - how would Vinesh and Bajrang have fared had they taken part in these trials?
Antim and Vishal have yet to file a petition in the Supreme Court but have said they will. However, given the clearly stated provisions of the WFI selection criteria and the Delhi High Court's statement on the matter, they face a tough task in reversing the decision in their favour.
The pair will get their shot in the trials for the 2023 World Championships (scheduled for August) - in which Vinesh and Bajrang are expected to compete against the top four (semifinalists) of the Asian Games trials. If Antim and Vishal do win those bouts, they will only strengthen their case further - which might have a bearing on any Supreme Court hearing.
There is also the matter of injury - Bajrang and Vinesh will be returning to competitive action after a long while and risk injury like Ravi, which could put the entire selection controversy to bed, as Antim and Vishal would go to the Asian Games in their stead.