BANGALORE: Virender Singh never gets to hear the national anthem on the podium. But that hasn't stopped the 'Goonga Pehelwan' - as he is known in the wrestling circles - from winning India the only gold medal at the Deaflympics in Sofia ( Bulgaria) on Saturday.
For the deaf-mute wrestler from Delhi, who grew up training with Olympics silver medallist Sushil Kumar, this was his third straight medal in the Games.
Competing in men's 74kg freestyle event in the 22nd Summer Deaflympics, the 28-year-old Virender, who returned home on Monday night, defeated Oguz Donder of Turkey to defend his title. The bronze medals went to Hiavorh Adamian and Aleksandr Ochirovich Tsoktoev of Russia.
Virender's victory is important for the promotion of deaf athletes in the country as the Indian contingent's trip to Sofia was marred by a no-holds-barred fight between two factions of the All India Sports Council of the Deaf.
"It is a great victory for Virender," said Sushil Kumar when TOI broke the news about the gold medal. "He is a very good wrestler and is even better in the traditional format (Kushti). Even now he practises with us at the Chhatrasal Stadium," he said. Asked about Virender's chances of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Games, Sushil said: "It will be big challenge but Virender is capable."
Goonga Pehelwan, who has earned fame winning dangals (fights), has long emerged as the face of all deaf athletes in the country after repeatedly proving his mettle on the world stage. Virender won India's first and only gold medal at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne and followed it up with a silver medal at the World Deaf Wrestling Championships in 2008 in Yerevan, Armenia. At the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei, Virender settled for a bronze and added another bronze at the 2012 World Deaf Wrestling in Sofia.
Virender, a clerk with the Haryana Power Corporation, earns more from dangals where he fights for prize money ranging from Rs 5,000 to 100,000. "He fights 20-25 dangals a year," said Vivek Chaudhary, a big fan of Virender.
According to Vivek, who is directing a documentary 'Goonga Pehelwan' with two of his friends, Virender polished his skills at the Chhatrasal Stadium, a nursery for some of India's top wrestlers, grappling with the likes of Sushil Kumar. "He always fought able-bodied men and is the only deaf wrestler there. To be sidelined because of a hearing disability is a cruel irony," Vivek said, blaming the sports administrators for not doing enough to help Virender compete in the Olympics.
"The national coach rates him as one of India's best wrestlers but the federation has never allowed him a chance to qualify for the Olympics saying that he can't hear the referee's whistle. The International Olympic Committee has clearly said that deaf wrestlers can compete and the officials should modify the tournament rules so that the referee can communicate the decision to him," he said.
Vivek said they would soon take up the matter with the sports ministry and if needed file a PIL to ensure that Virender gets a fair chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016.