Dusty akharas to Olympics, he wrestles his way to success, silently
Mute and deaf Indian traditional wrestler Virender Singh. Photograph: (WION)
Since 1925, the pehelwans, Indian traditional wrestlers, have been sweating, lifting weights and eating dust in the unpaved rings of this gym, the oldest in India's capital city.
They learn Kushti, a traditional wrestling style that relies mainly on unbalancing and immobilising the opponent.
He claps his hands. Two wrestlers stop fighting. He walks over and gesticulates that they should keep their necks straight while sparring.
Boys as young as 10 come to this gym from all over the country, mainly from rural areas, to develop their strength and skills. Consistency, fatigue, practice are what they need if, one day, they want to compete at the Olympic level like him.
He clicks his tongue, emitting an almost inaudible sound. The two wrestlers stop fighting. Lock the opponent's arm, he steps in again, and shows them how.
He is Virender Singh, mostly known by his nickname, Goonga pehelwan, 'the mute wrestler' in Hindi. He comes from Sasroli, a village of less than 4,000 in the north Indian state of Haryana. This village has a strong wrestling tradition. Of the 600 houses in the village, at least 350 have a wrestler under their roof.
Virender's father was a pehelwan himself and started training his son when he was 10 years old. He did not care if the boy was deaf and mute, he saw potential and decided to develop it. Virender trained hard, grew stronger, and learned the ropes in the many wrestling competitions across rural India, fought out in dusty akharas.
He turned out to be very good and soon started travelling around the world, competing, and winning, at international events.
Virender won his first Gold medal in 2005, in Australia, at the 22nd edition of the Deaflympics.
Three years later, he added a Silver medal at the 2008 World Deaf Wrestling Championships in Armenia, a land well known for its strong wrestlers. This Armenian medal is symbolically worth double: Virender was admitted at the last minute and had to fight in the 96-kg category, even though he was 84 kg at that time. Twelve kilograms of muscles make a lot of difference in a sport where lifting and knocking down your opponent is everything.
In 2013, Virender struck again and won another golden medal at the Deaflympics in Bulgaria.
He won his last Gold medal in May 2016 at the World Deaf Wrestling Championship in Iran.
The silence in the gym where he trains young wrestlers is not because of fear, but respect. Admiration for a man, who regardless of what is commonly believed to be a disability, a sign of weakness, stands out and keeps fighting.
There is something captivating in his eyes which, despite being nestled in the muscular body of a warrior, conveys a natural sweetness.
Virender had excellent coaches like Sushil Kumar, to name one, the only Indian wrestler to win two individual Olympic medals. They trained and sparred many times together and it is said that Goonga Pehelwan never lost to him. One more reason for his junior athletes to respect him.
There happens to be a negative element, however, in this inspiring story.
When an Indian athlete wins a gold medal in a recognised Olympic-level competition, he is entitled to receive a sum of approximately 100,000 USD from the Indian ministry of youth affairs and sport. Virender won two, making the due sum 200,000 USD.
Although he won his first Gold medal 11 years ago, he has not seen a single penny.
Virender's story is a perfect case study of the Indian sport scene where success comes mainly thanks to the motivation and the hard work of individuals involved, with bare minimum support from the country's institutions.