When Bajrang Punia returns to India, he will be a made man. He has been promised crores of rupees from politicians and governments. His employers – the Indian Railways – will offer him a promotion and there will probably be multiple other sinecures awaiting him. He is a celebrity now, there will be no shortage of clamouring fans. All this thanks to the blue ribbon with a bronze disc that he now wears around his neck.
Punia knew all this awaited him ahead of his bronze medal match against Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov on Saturday. But that was not what he was fighting for when he stepped onto the mat. The only thing that mattered was aatmasamman (self-respect).
That’s what Punia was fighting for. It’s the word fathers will use when they try to explain why they take their sons – as Punia’s father had taken him — to the mitti akharas of Jhajjhar, Haryana. There’s honour in being a pehelwan. That’s why young wrestlers like Punia dedicate themselves to this tough sport, enduring discomfort, pain and exhaustion day after day. The prizes, jobs, medals come later. What matters the most is the honour being a wrestler brings.
That’s what Punia’s coach Shako Bentinidis told him too. Bentinidis never lacks for inspirational videos – from the movies Gladiator, or 300 — to share and motivate Punia. But on the day of his bronze medal match, with the Indian looking in indifferent form and contending with not one but two injuries, Bentinidis reached out to the Indian using the one word he knew that mattered the most to him.
“I told Bajrang. Forget the medal. Forget the money. Forget the fame. Think about your self-respect. You can go back to India with nothing. Or you can return with your head held high. You can return with honour intact,” says Bentinidis.
The three and a half years of hard work came down to this. Punia is one of India’s most successful wrestlers in history. He has three medals at the World Championships, as well as an Asian Games gold. He had already been chosen as the one to hold the Indian flag at the closing ceremony. Bentinidis told him none of it mattered. “I said you could throw all those medals away. They were worth nothing. The only bout that mattered was this one.”
Bentinidis knew he had reached the 27-year-old. “He told me ‘Coach, it’s not possible that I lose. I saw the fire in his eyes. And I knew he would destroy the Kazakh,” says Bentinidis from Tokyo.
“The moment he stepped in a wrong way or if he was caught in a dangerous position, there was a risk that the ligament would snap completely.”
All that willpower would be needed against the Kazakh. While it was known that Punia had suffered a knee injury in the month before the Olympic campaign, what was not known was the extent of the wound or that it had been followed by another, shortly after.
“Bajrang suffered a tear in his right knee in the Ali Aliyev tournament. It was bad. We could hear the crack of the ligament right away. There is a tear. Bajrang’s doctor in India suggested we come back to get it treated but we didn’t have the time. We tried to treat it with physical therapy and after a couple of weeks we returned to the mat. In the same session, Bajrang strained a muscle on the back of his left thigh as well,” says Bentinidis. That took another two weeks off his training programme. Ultimately, Punia shot his knee up with healing plasma and carried on. But it was a bad situation. “When we came to the Olympics, our psychology (morale) was very low. This was not the way we had expected to prepare before the Olympics,” he says.
The two injuries didn’t directly curtail his movement. But they constantly threatened to aggravate themselves. “He could do his technique. But the moment he stepped in a wrong way or if he was caught in a dangerous position, there was a risk that the ligament would snap completely. Every time his leg was caught, I was very nervous because I felt this time it would go,” says Bentinidis.
It was the fear of worsening the injury that caused Punia to wear a brace around his knee and strap it tightly. It was not the only reason he was cagey in his first couple of bouts though. “The main reason was the shock of competing in the Olympics. I’ve competed in three Olympics so I know just how hard it is. He has competed for so many years but never at the Olympics,” Bentinidis says.
He would just about get through the first couple of matches before being stopped in his tracks by Haji Aliyev in the semifinals – setting up his clash with Niyazbekov.
In the hours after his victory Punia would speak of the anxiety with which he spent that intervening night. “I was so disappointed. No one can know how bad it was. I went to sleep early because I didn’t want to speak to anyone. But I couldn’t even sleep. I think I must have slept for about two hours that night,” he says.
The next day though, the words of his coach fired him up. He would even take off the protective strapping around his knee. “On the day of the bronze match, I didn’t put tape, because with it, my movement is restricted. It feels like I’m tying the legs. The doctor in Tokyo said I was risking injury but I said it’s the last day, don’t tie my legs up. I didn’t come to participate. I came to win a medal. If I don’t win a medal, it doesn’t matter if I get myself injured further. Even if I was broken, I can rest for a bit and then come back in four months. But I couldn’t return empty-handed,” he says.
The gamble would pay off, the knee held up as Punia beat Niyazbekov in a one-sided match. After the match, he hugged Bentinidis. The latter usually tends to suplex the Indian following the confirmation of a medal – something he had done in the Budapest World Championships, for example – but he knew this time was different. Punia meanwhile held up the medal, with only the barest hint of a smile on the podium. Indeed on a day of plenty, Punia’s Olympic medal wasn’t anywhere the best Indian result of the day – that belonged to Neeraj Chopra’s gold. After his bout, he would find just a single member of the Indian media in the mixed zone – the rest were at the Olympic stadium.
“I am unhappy with the result,” Punia would say later. “I couldn’t do what the country wanted. I will try and improve on this performance in 2024,” he said. But before that Punia will be getting his two injuries treated. “I’ll have them treated properly and only then resume training,” he said. But while Punia is disappointed with the colour of the medal, Bentinidis is far more relieved. “I love this bronze much more than if he had won silver. The silver would have been a medal from a match he would have lost. But this bronze medal was so difficult to win. If he had lost here, he would have lost his honour. He would have lost everything,” says Bentinidis.