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17 August 2016, 6 p.m. Balali village in the Bhiwani district of Haryana was bustling with frantic activity. People were rushing back home, women were hurriedly chopping vegetables for dinner, children were quickly finishing their last round of hide-and-seek and pakkadan-pakkadai (catch me if you can). An air of excitement hung over the village, but nowhere was it more pronounced than at the house of Mahavir Singh Phogat, the pehelwan of the village.
Like millions of others in the country, Mahavir and his family eagerly awaited the start of a series of women’s wrestling events in the capital city of Brazil, around 14,000 km away from Balali – a village that welcomes its visitors by proclaiming itself to be the home of international wrestlers Geeta, Babita, Ritu and Vinesh Phogat.
An otherwise typical village in the rural hinterland – with lanes dusty from the plying of heavy trucks ferrying stones and sand from a mining site nearby, cobbled streets and potholed roads – Balali has achieved a unique feat. In a state with the dubious distinction of having the poorest sex ratio in the country, where backward thinking regulates the everyday role of women in society, Balali’s identity has been shaped by the careers of the Phogat sisters. And, today, one of them was hoping to put this small village on the world map.
“It was the first time that three Indian female wrestlers had qualified for the Olympics and two of them carried the Phogat name”
It was the first time that three Indian female wrestlers had qualified for the Olympics and two of them carried the Phogat name. Vinesh Phogat – the younger of the two daughters of Mahavir Singh’s deceased brother Rajpal Singh – would be competing in the 48 kg category; the second of Mahavir’s four daughters, Babita Phogat, would be fighting to win in the 51 kg event the next day; and Sakshi Malik would be grappling in the 58 kg division. In the London Olympics held in 2012, only one female wrestler had represented the country – Mahavir’s eldest daughter, Geeta Phogat.
“In a state with the dubious distinction of having the poorest sex ratio in the country, where backward thinking regulates the everyday role of women in society, Balali’s identity has been shaped by the careers of the Phogat sisters”
The man behind the dominance of the Phogat sisters in Indian women’s wrestling sat on a cot before the television set with a hookah by his side, appearing relaxed but alert. The former national-level wrestler who had dedicated his life to training his daughters and nieces to be world-class wrestlers was waiting for the culmination of his dream – to watch one of them win an Olympic gold medal. Sixteen years of hard work, toil, sweat and tears had come down to this big day. In another few hours, he would know if all of that had paid oﬀ, if history had been made.
By 6.30 p.m., the village had collectively turned on its television sets. There was still time for Vinesh’s bout to start, but the villagers – seated in the veranda outside Mahavir’s house – were enjoying the other matches. Sounds of ‘yeh pech theek lagaya [his move was correct]’ and ‘yeh sahi pakda [his hold was perfect]’ started to fill the air. While the men cheered loudly, the women and children watched the bouts from inside the house.
Suddenly, an OB (outside broadcasting) van of a national television news channel screeched to a halt outside the house. As Vinesh was the top contender for the medal, the media wanted to get the first-hand reaction of the family as soon as she made it to the akhada podium. To capture the perfect family shot, the reporter asked Mahavir if he could watch the match along with the women and the other Phogat sisters, Ritu and Sangeeta – also international wrestlers – inside the house. Mahavir obliged without a fuss.
“As supporters watched in horror, Vinesh lay on the mat screaming in pain while her Olympic dream fell apart around her”
Finally, it was 7.18 p.m., and in Rio, Vinesh had won her opening bout, defeating Romania’s Alina Emilia Vic in a one-sided match, the victory awarded to her on the basis of technical superiority. In Balali, Mahavir’s otherwise serious face broke into a broad smile filled with pride and confidence – besides being Vinesh’s uncle, he was also her coach and foster father. Nerves eased, the Phogats cheered when her fellow wrestler Sakshi’s bout was announced and louder still when Sakshi was declared the winner.
At 8.30 p.m., Vinesh was pitted against Sun Yanan of China, battling for a berth in the semi-final. She began the bout by keeping herself in a dominant position while her opponent rushed to the corners to fend oﬀ the attacks. The referee cautioned the Chinese contestant and Vinesh took the lead 1-0, cheered loudly by her family back home.
And then it all came crashing down. When the bout began again, Vinesh struggled to get a grip to make her next move, and her opponent managed to free herself and catch hold of Vinesh’s ankle. While trying to ﬂip her over, Sun Yanan put her body weight on Vinesh’s knee, twisting it badly. Such was the injury that Vinesh could no longer stand. She lay there writhing, shouting in pain while medical experts were called in. The referee waited for a while and, when it was clear she could no longer compete, awarded the bout to Sun Yanan. As supporters watched in horror, Vinesh lay on the mat screaming in pain while her Olympic dream fell apart around her. A stretcher was called. As Vinesh was carried out, Sun Yanan walked alongside the stretcher, looking concerned and unhappy, for no sportsperson wants to win a bout like this.
Thousands of kilometres away, Vinesh’s coach watched the television screen, shattered. He would now have to wait for another four years to culminate the dream of his girls winning an Olympic gold. ‘For the last two years Vinesh had been doing superbly and the day she won medals in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, I was sure she would return home with a medal from Rio. But it was her hard luck. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined that something like this would happen,’ said Mahavir.
“The disappointment of the Phogat family was short-lived as Sakshi Malik’s bronze, the country’s first medal in Rio and first Olympic win in women’s wrestling, had them smiling.”
While Babita’s bout was still to come, it was more or less known that she could not advance as she was running a high fever. But the family stayed awake until 2.53 a.m. to watch Sakshi Malik’s match.
The disappointment of the Phogat family was short-lived as Sakshi Malik’s bronze, the country’s first medal in Rio and first Olympic win in women’s wrestling, had them smiling. ‘When the ticker came on TV for Sakshi’s bout, we realized that there was still hope. By winning the bronze, Sakshi has made up for Vinesh’s loss. She played brilliantly in the medal round,’ said Mahavir. ‘Now it’s back to waiting another four years for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to accomplish my mission.’
The next morning, it was training as usual for the Phogat sisters, their coach watching over them with his eye on the prize.