LONDON: Sushil Kumar has already carried India's flag at the London Olympics; now the wrestler carries his country's hopes of an elusive gold medal.
Beijing shooting champion Abhinav Bindra, India's first individual gold medallist, crashed out in the first round in London while boxer Mary Kom took bronze on Wednesday to add to the one won in badminton by Saina Nehwal.
Now the spotlight falls on Kumar, a Beijing bronze medallist and the 2010 world champion, as he aims for gold in the men's 66kg freestyle wrestling class.
“In my category, there are few wrestlers with whom I have not wrestled so far,” said the 29-year-old from Najafgarh in south-west Delhi.
“But this is the Olympics. You will have to be prepared for anything,” he added. “People back home have lot of expectation not only from me but from other wrestlers as well. This is a very good sign.
“You will not find the Indian wrestlers wanting in the ring. We are determined to give our best. But then, it is sports. Nothing can be predicted for sure.”
The son of a bus driver, who was himself a wrestler, Kumar was inspired to take up the sport by his cousin Sandeep.
However, Sandeep quit wrestling because the family could support just the one wrestler and it was a decision that went on to be rewarded with bronze in Beijing, world championship gold in Moscow and a Commonwealth Games gold medal on home soil in Delhi two years ago.
And Virender Kumar, coach at the wrestling centre where Kumar started his career has high hopes for both him and India's Yogeshwar Dutt, competing in the 60kg freestyle.
“We expect both Sushil and Yogeshwar to get gold because both of them are very good,” Virender Kumar told the Hindu.
“They have sufficient world-class experience. They have participated in three Olympics.”
“Sushil had some problems with his shoulder during the qualifying events but at present he is in the best of form.
“I think he is the frontrunner for the gold. He had told us before leaving that he will change the colour of his medal during this Olympics. I am sure he will turn the bronze into gold.” Whether Kumar does stand atop the podium in London, or not, he has already had a huge impact upon wrestling, a sport with deep roots in India but one, like many others, that has been overshadowed by the country's obsession with cricket.
“I want to become a wrestler like Sushil Kumar and represent India at the Olympics,” said Sheetal Gulia, a 13-year-old wrestler at the Wrestling Centre at Chhatrasal Stadium.
“It's a matter of pride for me that I am training at the centre where Sushil has been trained.”