In May this year, in Vancouver, British Columbia, retired sawmill worker Balbir Singh Dhesi came across a news article from his home country of India. It was about Indian wrestling’s recent successes – a subject of interest for Dhesi, a former wrestler himself. Two more Indian wrestlers had qualified for the Olympics, the article noted, taking the total number to eight – the joint best in the country’s Olympic history. But as he scanned the article, Dhesi (71) couldn’t help but feel a pinch of sadness. “Eight Indians had qualified. This is very good. But every one of them was from Haryana,” he recalls.
That regret comes from knowing that Punjab, once India’s wrestling powerhouse, would have no representation in Tokyo. Back in the 1970s, when he still lived in India, Dhesi was a national champion and one in a long line of talent. Among his contemporaries was fellow Punjabi Kartar Singh, to this day the only Indian wrestler to win two Asian Games gold medals. That talent pipeline has slowed to a trickle now. At the Olympic level, it’s almost run dry, left far behind by the smaller neighbouring state of Haryana. Punjab last produced a freestyle wrestling Olympian 17 years ago, when Parminder Cheema represented India at the Athens Games.
“Not a single one from Punjab,” Dhesi says, reflecting on the Tokyo Olympics line-up, but soon corrects himself. “Well, at least there’s one Punjabi: Amar is going.” That would be his son Amar, who will represent Canada at the Games after winning the 120kg freestyle Pan American qualifier.
While Punjab’s fortunes in freestyle wrestling have slumped in recent years, a small outpost of Punjabi expatriates in North America has not just maintained their connection to the sport but also begun to thrive. Dhesi isn’t the first Punjabi-Canadian freestyle wrestling Olympian from British Columbia. He’s followed on the path broken by Arjan Bhullar, who was the first freestyle wrestler of Indian origin to qualify for the London Olympics, also in the 120kg freestyle division.
British Columbia is a small province on the western coast of Canada. The Punjabi community is around 200,000 people, only five percent of the population. And wrestling has been part of their culture for almost a century now. Among the pioneers was Pal Dhaliwal, who emigrated to Canada in 1932 and is considered the first documented Punjabi-origin wrestler in British Columbia.
For the most part, though, wrestling wasn’t an organised sport. “Even as late as the 1970s, it was just something that was held on festivals. There wasn’t much local talent so they’d call wrestlers from India when they were conducting a chhinj (tournament) like they would do in India,” says Dhesi. He himself was one of those wrestlers who came over from Punjab. A Greco Roman national champion, he had trained at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala and even got a job with the Punjab Police, but like many from his region was enamoured with the possibility of going to Canada.
“The rules weren’t as strict back then. You just needed to have someone invite you and that’s how I went,” he recalls. After wrestling in the local chinj (tournament), Dhesi decided to stay on. There was growing interest in the sport owing to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “They told me, ‘If you stay here, maybe you won’t go to the Olympics but your kids will go. Your kids won’t have facilities in India but if they come to Canada, they’ll have opportunities they won’t have in India,” Dhesi recalls.
Dhesi had harboured Olympic dreams himself but the reality of earning a living in a foreign land took precedence. “Canada has a lot of advantages. Even the diet I saw here, the normal person was eating better in Canada than a wrestler’s khurak (diet) in Punjab. But I couldn’t dedicate myself to wrestling because the priority was providing for my family. I did all sorts of odd jobs. Finally I got work at a sawmill factory where we cut up trees into lumber. I worked there for 22 years straight,” he recalls. It was a tough gig, but Dhesi continued to wrestle on the side in the local chhinj. He wrestled for six years until a car accident put an end to that.
That was when he decided to set up a wrestling academy — the Khalsa Wrestling Club. There have been many wrestling clubs set up by the Punjabi Canadian community since, but this was the very first. “A lot of the other clubs were set up by wrestlers who once trained with me. They still call me the father of Punjabi Canadian wrestling,” he says.
Things were hard at the start. “We didn’t have a place to train so we would practise in a park. I had my job in the mill so I could only train them in the evening. And in Canada, there was no real wrestling tradition,” says Dhesi.
Initial recruits sought out the club for emotional as much as sporting intentions. Wrestling served as an anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar world. “Our community had a connection to the sport,” says Dhesi. “Wrestling was always very well respected by our people. A lot of parents felt that their children were losing the connection to their roots. They weren’t speaking in Punjabi and there was a problem of drugs and alcohol coming in. A lot of parents saw that when their kids went to wrestle, they would touch the feet of elders. This was something they wanted. Wrestling was a way to keep their kids connected to their culture.”
Since then, the sport has grown tremendously. Instead of practising in parks, the Khalsa Wrestling Club now has a dedicated training facility provided to them by the Surrey Municipal Committee with two full-size mats. Their coaches aren’t volunteers but paid full-time employees. Offshoots of the club have spread the sport across the community in British Columbia.
The community has thrown its support behind wrestling too. “At one time there was almost no interest. But now there’s a shauk (passion),” says Dhesi.
His older son Parm, a former Canadian national champion, has seen this too. “One of the main factors for our community’s success is that they are very invested in their children,” he says. “At every practice you’d see 50-plus kids, but there are 50 plus parents as well, taking time off work to be with them. Everyone knew this is a non-profit club. We had lots of parents taking the responsibility. They’d wash mats, make sure the accounts are in order. If some kids couldn’t cover travel and entry fees for tournaments, the community would raise money and make sure the kids can compete.”
This support was a necessity. “The wrestling community in all of Canada is very small — about the size of the community in Washington state in the U.S.. The Punjabi community in British Columbia is even smaller than that. We have achieved as much as we have because of the way we have been backed by them,” says Amar Dhesi.
Results have followed too. “For the first few years we got a few wins at the school level, then we started doing well at the state level. Eventually we started putting in people at the national level,” recalls Dhesi.
Each generation of Punjabi-Canadian wrestlers has been setting their goals a little bit higher than the previous one. Arjan Bhullar, the first Punjabi origin freestyle wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, saw this too. “When I was a kid growing up wrestling, the guys we looked up to were those who were winning at the state level. Later you’d see a few names making the national team but it would be a miracle if they even won a match. Now we have six to eight wrestlers who have won medals at the international level,” says Bhullar.
Amar (25) has seen the transformation happen around him. “We used to have a training routine where we would run laps while shouting out our goals. When I was a kid, the guys around me would be shouting ‘Top 10 in the world’ or ‘National champion’. Now, when I go back to the club, they’ll be yelling out ‘World number 1’ or ‘Olympic champion’,” he says.
He’s a bit of a pathbreaker himself, becoming, in 2017, the first Canadian wrestler to earn a full scholarship to a Division One NCAA team. He came third in the 2018 NCAA championships and finished second a year later.
For all his success, Amar admits he’s was often seen as an oddity when he travelled for competitions. “In Canada, it’s hard to deny the Punjabi community isn’t good at wrestling. In the United States, that knowledge isn’t quite there. When I was representing Canada as a junior, I remember a couple of American officials wanted to see my passport to confirm that I was a Canadian,” he says. “They couldn’t believe it.”
Amar has been balancing the Canadian and Punjabi parts of his heritage. “It’s impossible to separate the two. Our training and diet are getting more westernised. But the traditions we grew up with are the same,” he says.
Amar follows a lot of those wrestling traditions even today. Each time he steps onto the wrestling mat, he pays his respects by touching his head to the surface. “Non-Punjabis would ask us why we are doing it. That’s just something I grew up with. I have this incredible feeling when I do this,” he says. There’s also the gurj or ceremonial mace that’s handed out to winners of local competitions, much as they were back in the old country. It’s seen as an anachronism in India now but it’s still seen as an inalienable part of wrestling in the Punjabi community in Canada. One of them occupies a place of pride in Oregon State University too. “I won one in a competition in Canada and my coach at Oregon State wanted to know what it was. I explained how it was a part of the Punjabi tradition and gifted it to him. It’s now in his office,” he says.
There’s another side of Punjabi wrestling that’s found its way to Canada — the obsession with heavyweight wrestling. Both Bhullar and Dhesi compete in the heavyweight division. Even Yogi Johal, who had competed for Canada at the 1996 Olympics in Greco-Roman, had done so in the 130kg division. “It’s a very Punjabi thing. We love our big wrestlers. When people thought about pehelwani (wrestling) they always thought of the heavyweights. Wrestling in lighter weights is fine but the real pehelwans who compete in the most prestigious chhinj are those who compete in heavyweights,” says Bhullar.
Despite living half a world away, both Bhullar and Dhesi are both intrigued by wrestling in Punjab. “There’s no money in wrestling in Canada. It’s something you do out of passion but you have to be supported by your community. When I tell Amar that in Punjab you get cars, tractors and bikes for competing in tournaments, he says he wants to compete there himself,” says Balbir Dhesi.
But Dhesi also considers the rise of prize money in mitti (mud) wrestling tournaments as having a role to play in the deterioration of wrestling talent in Indian Punjab. “With so much money in these tournaments, why would a poor boy want to put the hard work to compete in Olympic-style wrestling?” he asks. He lists other factors as well. “Since the time I came to Canada, Punjab has faced a lot of problems. There was the whole conflict in the ’80s and ’90s. There are issues of drugs and alcohol, which weren’t there in the past. That’s affected a whole generation of wrestlers,” he says.
“It’s very distressing for me. I’m 71 now but I sometimes wish I could go back and do something for the sport. It’s not as if there is a lack of talent. But the opportunities are not the same,” he says.
Dhesi is hopeful eventually the wheel will come full circle and Punjab will find its way back. Until then, he’s happy to keep the flag flying in Canada. “Wrestling is a sport that’s given us a lot of self-respect. There’s a sense of pride in the Punjabi community here when they see what their wrestlers accomplish. There was a time when we would speak Punjabi and people would tell us to go back where we came from. Pehle dhakka khate the (we’d get pushed around). Now when we go for a wrestling competition, they get chairs for us and ask us to sit on it. If we can make so much progress, then I believe that Punjab too will find its way back,” he says.