Sakshi Malik | The wrestler who never stopped fighting

The Olympic medallist, who led the wrestlers’ protest over alleged sexual harassment and other charges against former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, has been vocal in her demand for a safer environment for the girls who take to the sport

December 31, 2023 01:07 am | Updated 01:56 pm IST

When the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) show-caused Geeta Phogat for indiscipline and barred her from participating in an Olympic Games qualifying event, scheduled in Istanbul in May 2016, followers of the sport believed it was a big blow to India’s chances of securing a quota place for the Rio Games.

Even though Olympian Geeta (58kg) — who shot into fame by winning the Delhi Commonwealth Games gold in 2010 — and her sister Babita (53kg), another Commonwealth Games and Worlds medallist, were good prospects, the WFI had to take strict action for the embarrassing moment India had to endure at the international stage. The two sisters had forfeited their inconsequential repechage round matches after failing to qualify for the Olympics in the qualifier in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

However, a less-known Sakshi Malik, who was Geeta’s replacement, and Vinesh, a cousin of the Phogat sisters who took the place of Babita, did not disappoint by claiming two quota places for the country.

Sakshi, who was not able to grab an Olympics spot in a previous qualifier in Astana, Kazakhstan, in March, grabbed her second chance with both hands to make it to her maiden Olympics. From beating the famous Geeta Phogat in the 2015 Pro Wrestling League to take her place in the team for the Olympics qualifier, Sakshi had come quite a distance. But she was determined to make it big in future.

In the Istanbul qualifier, Sakshi, whose claim to fame so far was a silver medal in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and a bronze medal in the 2015 Asian championships in Qatar, defeated Spanish wrestler Irene Garcia and Romania’s Kateryna Zhydachevska to reach the last-four stage. She fought back to tie the scores at 10-10 with 2012 World champion Lan Zhang of China and win on criteria in the semifinals. Her entry into the title clash ensured Sakshi a ticket to Rio.

A gritty fighter, Sakshi — who came from a humble background with her father working as a bus conductor — did not stop here. After 12 frustrating days for India at the Rio Games as its shooters and boxers failed spectacularly, Sakshi’s bronze medal came as a pleasant surprise on August 18, 2016.

Story of fightbacks

Sakshi’s success in Rio was a story of extraordinary fightbacks. She got the better of some top wrestlers, including Sweden’s World championships medallist Johanna Mattsson, Mongolia’s Asian medallist Purevdorjiin Orkhon and the decorated Kyrgyzstan wrestler and the then Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova (in the bronze medal match) to open the country’s account. She was later joined by shuttler P.V. Sindhu, who won a silver, as the two women saved India the blushes in the 2016 Olympics.

Sakshi, who honed her skills under coach Ishwar Dahiya at the Chhoturam Academy of Rohtak in Haryana, burst into tears as she became the fourth woman from the country to win an Olympic medal. The picture of her being carried on coach Kuldeep Malik’s shoulders during a victory lap on the mat remains one of the most iconic moments of India’s journey in the Olympics.

“Before the Olympics, I used to visualise myself on the podium in Rio. But the way my coach (Kuldeep Malik) carried me on his shoulders was unexpected. I was in tears and went through mixed feelings,” Sakshi, looking back at her achievement, said earlier. “It was my first Olympics and I wanted to do well. But I surprised myself when I landed a medal.”

Sakshi’s feat of becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal surprised all, including several pundits of the sport. It also brought cheers to the wrestling fraternity, which had seen an unpleasant off-the-mat duel between Narsingh Yadav and Sushil Kumar for the men’s freestyle 74kg spot in Rio and the eventual suspension of the former due to doping.

Sakshi is a member of the exclusive club of ‘Magnificent Seven’ Indian women who have won individual Olympic medals. The others in the club are weightlifters K. Malleswari (2000) and S. Mirabai Chanu (2021); shuttlers Saina Nehwal (2012) and P.V. Sindhu (2016, 2021); and boxers M.C. Mary Kom (2012) and Lovlina Borgohain (2021).

Sakshi carried forward a legacy, which saw the legendary Master Chandgi Ram promoting women’s wrestling and the Phogat sisters breaking the mould to popularise the sport in the traditional northern belt, as she broke the barrier by claiming Olympic glory.

Coming back from her loss of form and a brief stint as a television expert during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Sakshi again asserted her class on the mat by winning her maiden Commonwealth Games gold medal in Birmingham last year.

Married to a family of wrestlers, with her husband Satyawart Kadian and father-in-law Satyawan being Arjuna Award winners, Sakshi has a life that always revolve around wrestling. It is unsurprising that she came out courageously when it was time to fight for ‘justice’ earlier this year. Sakshi was one of the three most recognisable faces, along with Worlds and Olympics medallist Bajrang Punia and double Worlds medallist Vinesh, who led the wrestlers’ protest over alleged sexual harassment and other charges against former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Demand for safer environment

Sakshi has been vocal about the alleged harassment of women wrestlers in the country and in her demands for a safer environment for the girls who take to the sport. Snapshots of her tearful bytes to the press at a makeshift shelter at the protest site on Jantar Mantar Road in Delhi, stone-faced interviews to media and march to Haridwar with an intention to immerse her medals in the Ganga have shaken the conscience of a nation from time to time and have forced the authorities concerned to take noticeable action against a powerful politician.

Following the election of new office-bearers of the WFI earlier this month, which was dominated by candidates from the Brij Bhushan camp, including the newly elected president Sanjay Singh, a teary-eyed Sakshi keeping her shoes on the table during a press conference in Delhi while announcing her retirement from international wrestling emerged as a heart-wrenching image. This moment followed by the return of awards by Bajrang and Vinesh raised the intensity of the issue prompting the Union Sports Ministry to take measures for the fair running of wrestling affairs in the country.

Like her determined performances on the mat, the 31-year-old Sakshi has been fighting forcefully for a cause closer to her heart. Only time will tell how far she succeeds in her mission to make wrestling arenas in the country safer for women trainees.

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