On Tuesday evening, athletes around the world saw their Olympic dreams crushed as the Tokyo Games were officially postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Mumbai though, when wrestling coach Jagmal Singh called one of his trainees to discuss the situation, the voice on the other end of the line was hopeful. "I still have the time to prove my talent. Nothing is spoiled," Narsingh Yadav said.
Currently serving a four-year doping ban, Narsingh would have been ineligible to qualify for the Olympics had they been held as scheduled, but the postponement has thrown him a lifeline.
Narsingh is currently at his home in Mumbai, unable to train with the city locked down. He is married now, the father of a three-month-old baby boy. His life is entirely different from four years ago, when he was a 26-year-old at the peak of his career with the eagle-eyed focus of stepping on the Olympic podium.
A bronze medallist in the 74kg freestyle division at the 2015 World Championships, Narsingh had earned the right to be India's representative at the 2016 Olympics. However, he subsequently became embroiled with double Olympic-medallist Sushil Kumar over who would represent India in the 74kg category at the Rio Olympics that year.
It was a bitterly fought and controversial battle that saw Narsingh test positive (under suspicious circumstances) for steroid use just weeks before the competition. Narsingh continues to believe he was the victim of sabotage, but he received a four-year ban all the same. The ban ends in July this year - too late for Narsingh to have qualified for the Olympics, should the Games have been held on schedule between July 24 and August 9 this year. While four Indian wrestlers had qualified for the Olympics, none have, in Narsingh's 74kg freestyle division. The extra year by which the Olympics have been pushed, a challenge for most, could prove to be a lifeline for Narsingh. The 30-year-old certainly believes so. "It is destiny that this opportunity has come my way," he says.
Narsingh has also accepted that perhaps it was destiny that he wasn't able to compete at the Olympics four years back. "It was the biggest disappointment for me. At the 2015 World Championships, (World and Olympic champion) Jordan Burroughs said I was the wrestler he never wanted to wrestle. I had worked so hard to get to that point. I was a contender for an Olympic medal and that was snatched from me," he says.
A four-year ban at the peak of his career could well have proved decisive. Despite the setback, Narsingh says he always knew he would come back. "Nearly everyone deserted me. I lost sponsors and friends. But I never stopped training. I knew that eventually I would get a chance to come back because I was wronged," he says. Narsingh's insistence that he was sabotaged saw the case referred to the CBI and taken to the high court. While he says he was willing to undergo a narco-analysis to prove his innocence, the court certainly thought otherwise and the case dragged on for years before eventually being dismissed in February this year.
It had seemed a fruitless pursuit, but coach Jagmal says it was essential in order to motivate Narsingh. "He kept believing that perhaps after two years, he would be able to get the ban reduced and that would give him the chance to compete," he says. Jagmal knows just how hard it was. "He had to stay motivated despite knowing he could take part in no competition for four years," says Jagmal.
The lack of competition will be Narsingh's biggest challenge as he prepares to return. "He's never skipped a day of practice in four years. Every day he'll come in the morning and evening. He's as strong as he ever was and his skills are sharp. His walking weight is 80 kilos. It's exactly the same as four years ago. When he trains against the junior wrestlers, who have won medals at the nationals, he's able to beat them easily. But unless you take part in competition you will never be able to prepare," he says.
Narsingh knows this too. That's why, with competitions on the synthetic Olympic mats forbidden to him, he's done the next best thing. "I've taken part in mitti dangals (traditional mud wrestling). I've competed in the big tournaments in Kolhapur and Warana. It's not the same as mat wrestling, because there's no time limit to the bout, but I needed to get the feel of some competition," he says. When his dope ban is lifted, Narsingh says he's hopeful of getting the practice he needs. "The main thing I need is the correct exposure and training camps. I hope the (wrestling) Federation will support me," he says.
For its part, the Federation says it will back him. "The Olympics have been postponed so there will be some time for qualification tournaments to start. If Narsingh wants to return, we will give him the chance," says Vinod Tomar, assistant secretary of the WFI.
The fact that the Olympics are postponed by a year fits in with Narsingh's own comeback plans. "When I was out, I knew that the 2020 Olympics were something I wouldn't be able to return in time for. At that time my target was the 2020 Nationals and then the 2021 World Championships. If I get sponsors and support, I believe I can be ready in three months," he says.
It's a testament to his desire that Narsingh, despite the joy he feels as a new father, says he's prepared to commit himself completely to the pursuit of his Olympic dream. "I feel my son Dhruv is lucky for me. I want to be around him but I also want him to know me as an Olympic medallist. I will leave everything and focus. That is still my dream."