From the time he began his wrestling career, Sushil Kumar's destiny has been synonymous with New Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium. His formal initiation to the sport began as a 14-year-old when he began training at the wrestling mud pit at this multipurpose stadium in North West Delhi's Model Town neighbourhood. He continued to train there even as he rose to become India's most accomplished individual athlete with his second Olympic medal in 2012.
His bond became personal when he married the daughter of Satpal Singh, himself a wrestling great of the 1980s, who ran the wrestling school at Chhatrasal Stadium. At the stadium he's something of an icon now, never referred to as Sushil Kumar but with the honorific Sushil Pehelwan (wrestler) or just Pehelwan ji.
Now, ironically, it is Chhatrasal Stadium that has drawn him into notoriety. On Wednesday, the Indian Express reported that the Delhi Police had launched raids to locate Sushil, 37, for questioning over his alleged role in the murder of a 23-year-old former junior national champion, Sagar Kumar, who was beaten to death in the parking lot just outside the stadium premises late on Tuesday night. "In the initial probe, it has come out that... Sushil Pehelwan (Kumar) and his aides committed this crime...," the FIR read.
Sushil has denied he had anything to do with the incident. "They weren't our wrestlers, it happened late last night. We have informed police officials that some unknown people jumped into our premises and fought. No connection of our stadium with this incident," Sushil told ANI. He has subsequently stopped taking calls.
This is Sushil's latest - and most serious - brush with controversy.
Back in 2016, he had been involved in a dispute with the national wrestling federation over the matter of representing India at the Rio Olympics. Although another wrestler -- Maharashtra's Narsingh Yadav -- had won the quota, Sushil, by virtue of his record, had wanted trials to be held. Yadav eventually ended up failing a dope test just weeks before the Olympics. Yadav claimed he was the victim of conspiracy and filed an FIR accusing a young wrestler from Chhatrasal of tampering with his food. Although he hadn't named Sushil in the FIR, it was obvious who his accusatory finger was pointing towards. That case remains unresolved.
Trouble brewed up once again two years later when Sushil was attempting to make a return to the Indian squad to compete at the Commonwealth Games. After an ill-tempered bout, Sushil's opponent Parveen Rana and his brother were assaulted by a group of people he said were supporters of Sushil. Rana and his brother ended up requiring hospital treatment and an FIR was registered against Sushil and his supporters.
At Chhatrasal Stadium itself, however, Sushil had no shortage of admirers. Having been appointed a sports officer by the Delhi Government, Sushil has an office in the administrative block of the stadium.
It's probably the country's premier wrestling training school, having also produced Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt and three-time world medallist Bajrang Punia (both of whom eventually left, or -- depending on who you ask -- were forced out of the akhara or training ground). Many younger wrestlers were inspired to begin their own careers after watching him win his Olympic medals.
Ravi Dahiya and Deepak Punia, who won medals at the 2019 World Championships, continue to train at the akhara. Shortly after winning his bronze medal, Dahiya had thanked Sushil for his part in the achievement. "It is very difficult to win one Olympic medal and he has two. The best thing I learnt from him is discipline -- both on and off the mat.," Dahiya would say later.
It isn't just the wrestlers who look up to Sushil with awe.
Chhatrasal has a thriving athletics programme -- producing several national champions over the past few years. Sushil is often at hand, talking to the youngsters who come to Chhatrasal to train. In the evening, following his own practice sessions, he'd often stop to talk to athletes training for their own events in the athletics track. "We often see him training at Chhatrasal Stadium. Imagine having an Olympic medallist along with us. How many young athletes can say that?" says Taranjit Kaur, one of India's most promising junior sprinters. "He's always willing to talk to young athletes and guide us," says Taranjit, who credits Sushil with motivating her to return to training after a serious injury had caused her to nearly give up her sports career.
Other female athletes even credit Sushil with standing up for them and nipping issues of harassment in the bud. "There was an instance of some outsiders coming in and harassing female athletes. When Sushil pehelwan found out about it, he put an end to that issue. When it comes to sports, he's always ready to help out in any way," says an athlete who didn't want to be named.
This is the version of Sushil Kumar that the police will have to square off with. All the goodwill he has among the trainees here, all his personal achievements at this venue, could count for nothing depending on the course of investigation of the death of a young wrestler in the Chhatrasal Stadium parking lot.