While his sweat-drenched charges lock limbs in the open-air ring, kitted out in nothing more than a loin cloth, Raj Singh shudders as he contemplates how their Olympic dream could be shattered.
“It is unthinkable that wrestling will not be part of the Olympics,” says Singh, secretary general of the Wrestling Federation of India. “I don’t see what the problem is. Wrestling draws big crowds wherever it is played. It can’t be allowed to die.”
The sport’s future looks bleak after the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) executive board decided last month that it should be dropped from the 2020 Games.
Since then, many of the sports biggest names have joined in a campaign to try and get the decision reversed.
India’s overall Olympics record may not be much to shout about, but its wrestlers have won four of the country’s 13 individual medals since it gained independence from Britain in 1947, including bronze for Khashaba Jadhav in Helsinki in 1952.
Many aspiring wrestlers see the sport as not only offering the chance of grabbing Olympic glory, but also as a way to escape poverty.
Sushil Kumar, a silver medallist in London last year after winning bronze in Beijing in 2008, is a national hero in an otherwise cricket-obsessed country, his image used by advertisers to sell everything from soft drinks to tractors.
“We’ve started winning Olympic medals in wrestling so if they take it away it’ll be a big problem for us,” said Vinod Kumar, India’s national coach. “As soon as people heard wrestling may be dropped morale really went down.”
Sushil’s teammate Yogeshwar Dutt, who picked up a bronze in London, said he would return his medal if wrestling is not brought back into the fold.
“Wrestling is my life and it is the same for thousands of others,” Dutt said. “When we won medals, youngsters realized they too could make it big in the Olympics.”
“They began to dream big, but now those dreams are being shattered. They may not have anything to look forward to,” he said.
Dutt, born to teachers in a village school, secured a relatively lucrative job in the police force off the back of his Olympic success.
Many of India’s leading wrestlers over the years began their careers grappling in mud pits at the century-old Guru Hanuman akhara (wrestling arena) in the narrow by-lanes of old Delhi.
At least 125 trainees between the ages of 10 and 30 live at the dilapidated akhara, named after a legendary coach, where they cook their own food and learn the nuances of wrestling from a government-appointed coach.
Their fitness regime includes climbing ropes and running uphill on roads carrying each other on their shoulders, besides lifting weights at a makeshift open-air gymnasium.
Maha Singh Rao, the coach at the akhara since 1984, says the pupils are taught the basic principles of living a simple life with a pure mind and healthy body.
“Discipline is the most important thing for anyone who wants to make it big,” Rao said. “Wrestling is like life itself, where everyone wants to be stronger than the other person.”
Among the trainees at the akhara is Chandan Singh, 16, who left his parents in Hyderabad four years ago to move to Delhi and devote himself to learning the art of wrestling.
“I love it here,” the soft-spoken Singh said. “They look after me well and provide me good food. I also go to a nearby school, but the only thing I want to do is wrestle and make a name for myself.”