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On World Wrestling Day, Sushil shows up - as murder accused, in police custody

Sushil Kumar (in yellow, foreground) and his associate Ajay Kumar (in red, background) after they were arrested on Sunday, May 23. PTI Photo

Exactly a year ago, on the occasion of World Wrestling Day, India's greatest exponent of that sport, Sushil Kumar, had posted an image onto his Twitter account. 'Happy World wrestling day' was the caption of the image of one of Sushil's greatest triumphs. It's from the final moments of his bout against Kazakhstan's Akhzurek Tantarov in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics. Sushil, then 28, is at the peak of his physical gifts - a hero from antiquity. He has muscled the Kazakh wrestler off the mat, his left leg and right arm trapped in a vice like grip. In a fraction of a second, Tantarov will come crashing down and Sushil heading to the Olympic final, where he will become the first Indian to win a second individual Olympic medal.

On Sunday, there was a different image of Sushil doing the rounds of social media. The 37-year-old seems bedraggled, his face - by legal requirements hidden by a towel, his hands tightly held by two large Delhi Police men of the Special Cell who tower over him. Paraded in front of the waiting media, he's their star catch - a two time Olympic medallist - the only Indian wrestler to have been a world champion, now accused of the murder of a 23-year-old, arrested after two weeks on the run.

The fundamentals of the case are indisputable at this point. Late on the night of May 4, Sagar Rana, a 23-year-old former junior national champion wrestler, was killed in a brawl outside Chhatrasal stadium - perhaps the most premiere finishing school of Indian wrestling -- where Sushil had once trained himself and where he now serves as an administrator. Sushil had said he had nothing to do with the matter but was named by the Police in their First Information Report.

He had gone into hiding soon after, even as the police called him in for questioning and the courts later issued non-bailable warrants for his arrest. Reports say he flitted from state to state, from location to location in North India, before being arrested and paraded like a common criminal in Delhi itself.

His run from the law has perplexed people, not just those who know him.

Wrestling, one of the earliest and most elemental of sports is about one athlete trying to subdue the other with no equipment other than his own physique and force of will, making the conscious decision to choose fight rather than flight. The mythology of kushti too is replete with stories of great fighters locking limbs in bouts that into hours, days, eons, losing but never fleeing the field.

For much of his career, Sushil was the modern exemplification of this ideal that reaches back to antiquity. He was known for his wealth of accomplishments and more recently his ability to hone talent at Chhatrasal. But what had always stood out was his willingness to stay in the fight.

In his bout against Tantarov in London, Sushil had been down 0-3 in the deciding period with just a minute and a half left in play. Faced with the prospect of the end of his Olympic dream, he had launched himself on to the Kazakh. Even when he took back the lead, he had stayed on the offensive, finally lifting up Tantarov to seal the win. There had been troubling accusations of unsportsmanlike behaviour - thumbs to the eye and bites to the Kazakh's ear that drew blood - all moments that might have proved prescient for his complicated life and his desire to win at all costs later on. But when it mattered Sushil had fought back, gone toe to toe with adversity, and won.

Sushil is still only an accused in the crime. He might still be proved innocent of his charges. But when it was time to confront the biggest challenge of his life, what will be noted was that rather than choose to fight, Sushil chose to run.

For all his incredible achievements on the mat it is this final action that leaves him immensely diminished. Underneath one post showing Sushil's arrest on social media is a comment that reads "He doesn't even look that tough as he appears on TV. Even the Policemen look tougher than him."