'I don't have to prove anything to anyone' - Sushil


"Do you worry about your legacy?"

Sushil Kumar does not even consider the question seriously, posed to him on an evening cool down at New Delhi's Chhatrasal stadium a couple of weeks ago. He might as well be brushing away a hopeful attempt at a takedown, from one of the several no-hopes he will face on Thursday morning at the Commonwealth Games.

"Bilkul nahi (Not at all)," he says evenly with no hint of being bothered by the impudence of the question.

"You tell me. What do I have left to prove?"

His body of work is certainly impressive. But as he prepares to compete in his third Commonwealth Games in the men's 74kg, with an unblemished record on the mat, life outside the ring has been anything but. There is a gnawing feeling Sushil, the most accomplished of Indian athletes has stuck around a bit too long. Maybe not long enough to become a villain as Harvey Dent would put it, but enough to not be the hero he once was.

Sushil, 34, plainly has not made the news for a positive reason since four years ago when he won gold at the Glasgow Games. Having almost single handedly dragged the sport into sporting and mainstream respectability, Sushil now is synonymous with controversies the sport had hoped to leave behind.

There was the entire saga of doping claims and counterclaims that saw both him and Narsingh Yadav, his rival in the 74kg category, miss the Olympic games. While Narsingh is now serving a dope ban, Sushil made a comeback at the nationals last year. What should have been a tale of redemption, was mired after three rivals conceded bouts to him in increasingly farcical manners.

Just a couple of months later, Parveen Rana, another rival who had obsequiously touched Sushil's feet at the Nationals, claimed supporters of the two-time Olympic medalist had beaten both him and his brother after an ill-tempered bout for the Commonwealth Games squad.

So it didn't come as a shock, when just a few days before the start of the Commonwealth Games, the rumor mills went on overdrive. The story was that Sushil's name - India's most decorated Olympic athlete - was not in the official site. It turned out to be a programming error rather than a conspiracy to exclude him from the games.

He has a few similar tales. "Some time back I was walking with a coach and his lace was undone. I told him, 'coach saab lace bandh do, warna gir jaoge.(Coach sir, tie your laces or you will fall down) And then people will say Sushil has pushed you over."

Sushil is joking, but you get the feeling he is unsure of the situation he finds himself in.

He is used to being adored and at New Delhi's Chhatrasal akhara, which is a sort of mini fiefdom, he still is. Children, not just aspiring wrestlers but even those training in track and field, wave at him during his evening cool downs on the synthetic track next to the wrestling hall. He still has an easy charm, as he shakes hands and even reminds a couple of differently-abled athletes about a puppy they had adopted recently.

"At first it was difficult to get used to. I used to think I've done so much for the country. Then people were accusing me of all sorts of things. People say things behind your back. If I say something, it will be to your face."

He says he has made his peace with that now. The fact that he is 34 and close to the end of his career has nudged him along that path. "You only have a limited time in sport. In this time you have to do as much as you can. You can't waste your time in useless things," he says. "It is difficult to change how others think. What I can control I will do."

He shrugs aside slights like being dropped from the Target Olympic Podium scheme or from the 50,000 rupee a month stipend for top athletes. "I've done well for myself. I don't need to run around after 50,000 rupees. I don't have time for that anymore."

Sushil vows that there is no finish line in sight.

"I've had people telling me to retire when I first won an Olympic medal. They asked me 'What more do you have to achieve.' What would people who thought qualifying for the Olympics was the biggest achievement know (about when to retire)?

"I don't have to prove anything to anyone. Not even to myself. I will compete until I can't compete anymore."