Asian Olympic qualifiers: Which Indian wrestler can make it to Tokyo 2021?

Sonam Malik (in blue) competes against Hanbit Lee (KOR) in the 62 Kg category during the Senior Asian Wrestling Championship in February 2020 in New Delhi. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

From India's first individual medallist (KD Jadhav, 1952) to the only double individual medallist (Sushil Kumar, 2008 and 2012), wrestling has been one of India's most successful sports at the Olympics.

In 2016, India sent its largest contingent to the Games yet -- eight, including eventual bronze medallist Sakshi Malik. This year, as things stand, four have already qualified for Tokyo -- Ravi Dahiya (men's 57kg freestyle), Bajrang Punia (men's 65kg), Deepak Punia (men's 86kg) and Vinesh Phogat (women's 53kg). The contingent could be significantly bigger this time as another 14 wrestlers will get a chance to add to that number at the Asian Olympic qualifier that begins in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Friday. While Indian wrestlers have to finish with either a gold or a silver to qualify, the absence of North Korea, who have pulled out of the Olympics altogether, might make things a little easier.

There will be additional pressure owing to the fact that there are fewer Olympic spots on offer overall (288 in Tokyo or about 16 qualifiers in each category as compared to 350 and 20 qualifiers in each weight division at the Rio Olympics). This means that should wrestlers not qualify at the Asian qualifiers, they will have just one more chance -- at the World Qualifiers in May.

So who has the best chance of qualifying? We break it down by each weight category.

Greco-Roman, Men's

No Indian has qualified in the Greco Roman category so far. India's best chance to qualify will be here since the divisions (especially in the heavier weights) are relatively weaker to that at the World level. India's best prospects in this category will be through Gurpreet in the men's 77kg division and Sunil in the men's 87kg division.

Men's 60kg

The field is depleted since four Asians already qualified at the World Championships, but India's representative, Gyanender Singh's chances depended on his draw. Unfortunately Gyanender has been drawn in the same bracket as the strongest wrestler in the competition -- 2020 Asian silver medallist and 2018 World silver medallist Zholaman Sharshenbekov. With the two likely to meet in the semifinal, Gyanender will have to pull off a major upset to book his ticket to Tokyo.

Men's 67kg

With no Asian wrestler having qualified at the 2019 World Championships, the odds are stacked against India's Ashu, a bronze medallist at the 2020 Asian Championships. However, he's found a bit of fortune. Two of the biggest threats --Three-time World champion Ryu Han Su of South Korea and former World bronze medallist Meirzhan Shermakhanbet of Kazakhstan have been placed on the other half of the draw. Ashu though will most likely have to beat 2019 Asian Champion Mohammad Reza Geraei of Iran in the semifinals to confirm his place in the Tokyo Olympics.

Men's 77kg

Gurpreet Singh won the Rome Ranking series last year but that tournament has also been his last international event. He missed the Asian Championships last year as well as the Rome Ranking series a couple of months ago, due to a niggle. He won't have it easy in Almaty having drawn two-time Olympic medallist Hyeon Woo Kim in his first round.

Men's 87kg

As the first Indian Greco-Roman wrestler in 27 years to win an Asian title in 2020, plenty of hopes would be on Sunil Kumar's shoulders.However, that title was won in the absence of three-time Asian champion and 2017 World bronze medalist Hossein Nouri of Iran. The two have faced off before, with the Iranian beating the Indian in the final of the 2019 Asian Championships. A silver wouldn't be a bad result this time around. Luckily the draw has favoured Sunil, keeping him out of the Iranian's half of the bracket.

Men's 97kg

Although he beat out 2016 Olympian Hardeep Singh to earn his right to compete at the Asian qualifiers, Ravi Kumar will face a tough ask to make it to Tokyo. Although he avoids reigning Asian champion Mohammad Saravi of Iran in the competition, Ravi's path to Olympian status will be a hard one. His first round is against 2019 Asian Champion Uzur Dzhuzupbekov. He's likely to come up against 2020 Asian silver medallist Se-yeol Lee of South Korea in the semis.

Men's 130kg

With just one Asian having qualified at the World Championships, the field at the Asian qualifiers is likely to be too hard for India's Naveen Kumar to overcome.

Women's Freestyle

The absence of North Korea will be most felt in the women's freestyle category. Seema Bisla would benefit from the absence of World bronze medalist Kim Son-Hyan, while the exit of Worlds quarterfinalist Jong In Son should work in favour of Anshu Malik.

With relatively few participants in the women's 50kg and 76kg divisions the top two positions - and correspondingly Olympic qualifiers -- would be determined through a round robin format. Wrestlers in the women's 57kg, 62kg, 68kg divisions have been divided into two separate groups that would compete in a round robin format with the winner of each group competing against the runner up of the other group. The winner of that match will qualify for the Olympics.

Women's 50kg

Seema Bisla was a win away from making it to Games in the 2019 World Championships itself, but she lost to eventual bronze medallist Ekaterina Poleschuk of Russia. She has a good chance of booking her ticket to Tokyo in Almaty though. Japan's Yui Susaki is the clear favourite for gold, but Seema only needs to finish second to qualify, and the withdrawal of North Korea's Kim Son-Hyan puts her in a good position to do that.

Women's 57kg

Anshu Malik is coming off an injury niggle that caused her to concede a match in the Rome Ranking series. However, with the field relatively bare owing to the absence of the wrestlers from North Korea and with Japan and China having already qualified, Malik would be a heavy favourite to return with an Olympic quota.

The women's 57kg division has been split into two groups of three wrestlers each, with the winner of each group competing against the runner-up of the other group. The winner of that match will qualify for the Olympics. Malik will wrestle South Korea's Um Jieun and Kazakhstan's Emma Tissina, both of whom she will be expected to beat.

Women's 62kg

Although she's earned her place in the Indian team by beating Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, former cadet World champion Sonam Malik won't have it easy in Almaty.

The women's 62kg division has been divided into two groups, with the winner of each group competing against the runner up of the other for a place in the Olympics. Sonam will be up against rising Chinese wrestler Jia Long in her group. The Chinese wrestler doesn't have much international experience but had put up some strong results including losing a narrow 6-6 decision to World Champion Aisluu Tynbekova on her way to winning a bronze in the 2020 Matteo Pellicone tournament. While Sonam should still get through, she will likely have to face either Junior World silver medallist Nabira Esenbaeva of Uzbekistant or Asian silver medallist Ayaulym Kassymova of Kazakhstan for a place in the Olympics.

Women's 68kg

Coming off a four-year ban, Nisha Dahiya will be looking to make up for lost time having made the Indian team ahead of 2020 Asian Champion Divya Sain. Although three of Dahiya's toughest rivals are out of the equation (Japan and Mongolia having qualified already and no North Korea), her path to Tokyo through Almaty isn't going to be easy.

Although she should advance from her group, she's likely to be up against either China's Feng Zhou, Kazakhstan's Zhamila Bakbergenova or Meerim Zhumanazaravo of Kyrgyzstan in the semifinals. Neither will be an easy opponent. Bakbergenova is in excellent form having won gold the Rome Ranking series in March, as did Feng while additional challenges will be posed by 21-year-old Junior World silver medallist Meerim Zhumanazaravo of Kyrgyzstan.

Women's 76kg

In another relatively threadbare field with three Asian countries having already qualified for the Olympics, India's Pooja Sihag has a strong chance of qualifying for the Tokyo Games. Her main rivals will be Aiperi Kyzy of Krygyzstan and South Korea's Seo-yeon Jeong, both of whom are silver medallists at the Asian Championships.

Men's Freestyle

India has already qualified three wrestlers in the men's freestyle division and most eyes will be on the prospects of Sandeep Mann in the marquee 74kg division. Prospects are dimmer in the heavier divisions.

74kg freestyle

Sandeep Mann earned his place in the Indian team on the back of wins over World Championships medallist Narsingh Yadav and former Asian champion Amit Dhankar. In Almaty, two-time World Championships medallist Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan will be a difficult obstacle, as will former Asian and World medallist Adam Batirov of Bahrain and 2016 World championship bronze medallist Elaman Uulu Dogdurbek of Kazakhstan.

97kg freestyle

Satyawart Kadian has his task cut out. The ten-man bracket in the 97kg division is headlined by Rio bronze medalist Magomed Ibragimov of Uzbekistan, but it's Iran's Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian who will be the biggest threat. A former World bronze medallist, Mohammadian returned from a 2019 doping ban with a bang in 2020 by pinning Olympic champion Kyle Snyder.

125kg freestyle

Needing to make the final to qualify, India's representative Sumit Malik got a bit of good fortune after Uzbekistan's Khasanboy Rakhimov, bronze medallist at the 2019 World championships failed a doping test. It resulted in Iran getting the Olympic quota -- removing a serious threat at the Asian qualifiers. It also meant that Uzbekistan will be going into the competition with a less accomplished wrestler. Sumit will still have to hope for a favourable draw and avoid Asian Champion and favourite Yusup Batirmurzaev of Kazakhstan.