Renowned as the ‘Goonga Pehelwan’, Virender Singh is a hidden gem of Indian wrestling. Virender, who can neither speak nor hear, is India’s best deaf athlete. He boasts of seven medals in twelve years, four of them being gold. While Virender has enjoyed a lot of success on the international level, his rise to the grand stage was nothing short of baptism by fire. The wrestler hailing from Haryana had to brave numerous hurdles to reach where he is today.
Virender’s list of medals includes gold medals in 2005 (Australia), 2013 (Bulgaria), and 2017 Summer Deaflympics (Turkey). He has also won a bronze medal at the 2009 Summer Deaflympics (Taipei). Virender also won the World Title at the World Championship and has a gold, silver and bronze medal at the three World Deaf Wrestling Championships that he has been to. He won gold at the 2016 World Deaf Wrestling Championship, silver in 2008 and bronze in 2012. This makes it seven medals at the seven international events that Virender has been a part of.
After years of struggle, the government awarded Virender the much revered Padma Shree award this year to honor the laurels he has brought the nation. He was awarded the Arjuna award in 2016. FirstSportz caught up with Rambir Dagar, Virender’s close friend for over two decades now, for a chat. As Virender can communicate only in person, Dagar opens up about his hard-fought journey from the akhadas of north India to the World Championship, Deaflympics and now the Padma Shree award.
A humble beginning
At the age of 10, his father Ajit Singh, a wrestler who worked for the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), brought him to Delhi for treatment of a foot injury. At the same time, the young boy also started training under his father and uncle. Dagar shares that Virender’s interest in wrestling started to bloom as he went about learning his ancestral sport.
“Virender had an issue with his feet, he had some allergy. So, his uncle, Surinder Singh brought him to Delhi for medical assistance. His uncle and his father, Ajit Singh, who were wrestlers themselves lived in an akhada in the national capital. While working in CISF, the brothers brought the wrestlers together and they used to coach and guide them. Watching his father and uncle, Virender thought of trying his hand at the sport,” Dagar shares.
“As he started playing, his interest in the game grew over time. Seeing his nephew taking interest in the sport, Surinder started giving more focus on training him. Surinder made sure that the young boy, who was then 10 years old, continues his training with him. And hence admitted him in a school in Delhi.”
Dagar, who is like a brother to the famed wrestler, shares that Virender’s uncle accompanied him to every training and competition. This meant he had no problem whatsoever during his early days as a budding wrestler.
“As he went to train outside, Virender was always accompanied by his uncle Surinder. So he never had any trouble learning from different coaches as Surinder was always there beside him at every step. Let it be practice or any competition, Surinder always accompanied Virender.”
Waking up before the crack of dawn, the wrestler’s day starts with a punishing 8-hour workout schedule. No vice and a single-minded focus have been Virender’s life ever since. While other athletes struggled to train during the lockdown, Dagar shares that Virender practiced at home with two big events coming up for him shortly.
“The lockdown did not affect Virender’s training,” asserts Dagar. “If not on the mat, he practices at home. He never compromises with his practice.”
The financial struggle
Being a deaf athlete, Virender never got any aid from the government for years. While other Olympic winners received more than Rs. 5 crores from various governments, states and sports associations, Virender struggled to make ends meet. Through these years, with no other avenue of income or support from the government, Virender had to resort to participating in village dangals to support himself.
“Fighting in akhadas, in the mud, was a compulsion for him as he didn’t get equal treatment from the government like other athletes. It was not until 2020 that he got the same treatment as other players. Before that, he used to go from village to village fighting in dangals (local wrestling competitions) to make ends meet,” Dagar recalls the hardships.
“The prize money varied, somewhere he won 5100, 3000 in another. That is how he moved up the ladder because the government never batted him an eye. The way our government has been supporting the Olympians and the Paralympians, it was only in 2020 that the Deaflympians got the same treatment and support.”
Kiren Rijiju’s helping hand
Over the years, Vijender sought the help of the sports ministers to grant him aid to facilitate his stellar rise. But none bothered to bat an eye at the deaf wrestler. Despite the setbacks, Virender never gave up. And his call for help was finally answered by current Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju. Dagar recalls how he had to wait long hours with Virender to meet the sports ministers but to no avail. He shares that Rijiju is the first holder of the office to lend a helping hand.
“It was a long fight for Virender. Kiren Rijiju Ji was the only sports minister who offered us a helping hand. Before him, we had gone to numerous ministers for help only to return empty-handed. I and Virender have visited every sports minister who came before him (Kiren Rijiju). We used to show them how many medals Virender has won over the years. All they would say is that he (Virender) doesn’t come under the sports policy. Some even refused to meet us. Kiren Ji has helped Virender a lot,” Dagar expressed his sincere thanks to the Union minister.
“We are very obliged to the sports minister. Until now, there has been no sports minister like him. Before him, we had to struggle a lot to get an appointment with the sports minister. Many a time, we waited for long hours to get an audience with a minister but still, they didn’t bother to meet. But it was different with Kiren Ji. He had invited Virender from his side to meet and then tweeted lauding his achievements. So that day itself we had realized that he will do something to get Virender’s talent and hard work the recognition it deserves.”
Virender wants to prove that deaf athletes are no less
The 34-year-old has faced numerous hurdles in his life owing to his disabilities. Let it be in dangals or national trials, people have never wasted an opportunity to remind him of his inability to speak and hear. Despite the insults hurled at him, the three-time Deaflympics gold medallist never gave up. Instead, these setbacks are what made him stronger.
A burning example of it is the Wrestling Federation of India not allowing him to take part with able-bodied competitors at the international level. While the rejection would have broken many, Virender was inspired by it. Dagar shares that following the incident, Virender swore to prove that deaf wrestlers are no less than Olympians and para-athletes.
“In 2002, as a 16-year-old, he won the national cadet championship competing with able-bodied athletes in the 76 kg category. The next stop was competing outside the country and there were to be trials for that. He won that trial but was still not sent for the international competition because the authorities said he cannot hear the whistle during a bout,” Dagar said.
“Having been rejected on numerous occasions for participating in competitions with able-bodied athletes, he realized that there many deaf athletes in India. He thought, why shouldn’t I fight for them. For he has already faced many difficulties and going ahead, others will also face the same. So he feels that deaf players should also move forward and make our country proud. He knows that deaf athletes should get the same treatment as para-athletes.”
“After not being allowed to participate with the able-bodied, he is now determined to prove that he is the best in his category, the deaf category. And he wants to prove that deaf athletes are no less than able-bodied and para-athletes.”
Virender’s support system
Having faced so many hardships on his way to the pinnacle, it is only natural to what kept the star grappler motivated. Dagar shares that it was he and his father, Ajit, who made sure Virender’s primary focus was on his game. Having been at Virender’s side for more than decades now, Dagar knows exactly what the wrestler had to go through.
He shares that no matter what the situation, Virender’s father made sure that he never had to worry about anything. Let it be the financial worries or that of the family, Ajith made sure that his struggles don’t hamper his game.
“His father, Ajit Singh, has been his pillar of support. He never let him lose hope, he said that your every requirement will be taken care of, every problem will be taken care of, you only focus on your game. He only asked him to give his best on the mat and he has been with him always, throughout his career. Me (Dagar) and his father are always beside him. If he requires anything, we make sure it is taken care of and his game is not affected. We said we will fight with the government, if it comes to that, we will do everything possible to help you,” Dagar shares.
“And now that he is getting recognition, our confidence is at an all-time high, our belief in him has only got stronger with time. So we make sure his self-belief is not dented, we urge him to keep focusing on his game.”
This treatment of a World Champion is not acceptable
Sharing about the hurdles Virender had to cross, Dagar shares how he was robbed of financial aid. He shares that he only received a sixth of the amount he was entitled to. And a majority of it spent paying off the debts he took to participate in competitions overseas. It won’t be wrong to say that Virender has swum across a sea of flames to reach where he is today. And his laurel from the Indian government was long due.
“In 2017, Virender participated in the Deaflympics. So the Haryana government announced a grant of INR 6 crores giving Deaflympics equal status as Olympics and Para Olympics. But even then, we never got the grant amount, we lost that too. We received an amount of 1.2 crores and neither did he got the job he was promised. But we are confident that it will happen sooner or later,” Dagar shares.
“Off the received amount, almost 98 lakhs went to clearing the debts we took to facilitate his rise to the international level. Virender was left with essentially nothing. On the other hand, para-athletes have been rewarded handsomely.”
While the central government has recognized deaf athletes as the same as Olympians and Paralympians, Virender struggles to get basic grants from the state government. He is yet to be felicitated for his last Deaflympics gold medal. Furthermore, he still awaits a job which he is entitled to under the sports quota.
Dagar is mighty displeased with the state government which claims to be very helpful to its athletes. He feels that the government doesn’t care about the star grappler only because of his impairments.
“Since March 2020, the central government has decided to give Deaflympics and its participants the same status as the Olympics and Para Olympics. But the same has not been applied in Haryana. Manohar Lal Khattar was quick will implementing and accepting the newly passed Farm Laws. But this ruling is yet to be implemented in the state. Virender is yet to receive the cash award for his previous Deaflympics medal and hasn’t received a job he is entitled to. So this treatment of a World Champion is not acceptable at all. Just because he is deaf and dumb, he has been robbed of his rights as an athlete,” a dejected Dagar adds.
“On one hand, he is making the state of Haryana proud on the international level. But the government is doing nothing to respect his dedication, his achievement and the laurels he has brought to the state.”
The wait for Khel Ratna continues
While his talent and dedication have started to gain the recognition it deserves, Virender still awaits to be bestowed with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. Dagar contests that athletes with much fewer medals than Virender have been awarded. But the former World Champion is yet to be added to the policy.
“We have been applying for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award for five years now. While the award has been bestowed upon Olympians and Para Olympians, Deaflympians are not included in the policy.”
One of Virender’s oldest friends and biggest supporters is Sushil Kumar, India’s most decorated Olympic wrestler. They practice at the same akhara at Chhatrasal Stadium, under the same coach, Satpal, for the last 10-12 years. Dagar hails him as Virender’s great supporter.
“Sushil Kumar has been a great supporter of him. He has always hailed Virender. Sushil has fought Virender quite a few times and he has often mentioned that he is not a lesser athlete than him in any way. Sushil is a very good friend of Virender and they practice together too. And he is always ready to support Virender,” Dagar said. “Every time we (he and Virender) visit him, Sushil always says that I am always with you, if you need any help just let me know.”
To sign off, Dagar adds that its high time Virender is added to the TOPS scheme of the government. With two big events, the World Deaf Championship and Deaflympics, coming up, Virender deserves to be part of the elite group. It would be a great help for the Haryana wrestler who is all set to more feathers to his cap.
“The government has introduced the TOPS scheme, where India’s top athletes have been included to help them in their preparations for the Olympics and Para Olympics. 19 para-athletes have been included under the scheme where they and their associates are given a monthly grant. So the expectation from Kiren Ji and the government is that Virender is included in the scheme for he is the deaf player and deserves a spot. When 19 para-athletes have been included, then Virender too should be included,” Dagar signed off.
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