Wrestling: Postman's son can deliver goods for Britain with Olympic gong

Forget WWE, 18-year-old Jatinder Rakhra has got to grips with the oldest sport of all – even with a heart problem. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

No grunts, no groans. No one throws a tantrum or a chair. It is just two young men in leotards getting to grips with each other in the oldest sport of all. This is not the choreographed, steroids-infused world of Wrestlemania, where the falls are as fixed as the anguished grimaces on the faces of the combatants. You won't find names like The Rock or The Undertaker. This is sport in its purest and simplest form, a world away from the days when Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks bumped their bellies on ITV as old ladies screamed abuse and refused to believe that it wasn't for real.

The Greeks had a word for it – pali – before boxing and ball games were invented. The North-west of England has always been a hotbed of wrestling and it is here we go from The Rock to a hard place, the British Wrestling Academy in Salford, as spartan a sporting institution as you will find anywhere in the land.

Inside, a homily on the wall reads: "Train Hard – Win Easy. It is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog." Visitors are treated with some suspicion because, as one official said, "reporters usually only come here to take the piss".

Wrestling, as seen in the Olympics, never gets much of a press, and the British Wrestling Association, apart from understandably resenting any association with the showbiz boys of WWE, are peeved that when the sport did get into the papers recently, it was with accusations that Eastern European wrestlers were being imported to acquire citizenship here and boost British medal prospects for 2012. It is true that a small group of Bulgarians and Ukrainians, including two women (female wrestling was introduced into the Olympics at Athens in 2004), train with British wrestlers in Salford, where there are also two full-time Ukrainian coaches, but wrestling's performance director, Shaun Morley, a senior police officer, insists they are merely here as sparring partners: "There is no programme to naturalise them, and never will be."

He says domestic prospects need quality competition, and this is echoed by one of them, 18-year-old Jatinder Rakhra, who is being groomed for a rare British place on the podium in 2012. "They are here to help us improve our standards," he says. "Practising against them is like wrestling in a final."

Britain have won only three wrestling medals in Olympic history, the last in 1984, when Noel Loban took bronze in the Los Angeles freestyle light-heavyweight event. Rakhra, a postman's son from Slough, is the current British junior champion in the lightest division, under 55kg, and was 10th in the world juniors in Beijing last year.

He has been wrestling since he was four. "My dad's friend, who used to be a wrestler back in India, opened a wrestling club. When it closed after four years, I joined the Slough Olympic club and got to British Championship level.

"Early on, I used to wrestle just once or twice a week, and it was really just messing around between playing football and other sports. Later, when peopleasked me what I did and I said I was a wrestler, they used to look at me and laugh: 'What, WWF [as it was called then]? You're too small.' Actually, I used to collect WWF stickers and watch The Rock, but now I think it's all rather stupid, a joke. Wrestling used to be a popular sport in this country and I sense it is becoming so again. Come 2012, I think it will really have taken off."

Rakhra, who now lives in Manchester and is studying for a degree in sports and leisure management through Bolton University, says: "My parents have been terrific, without them I wouldn't have been able to do this, and my coaches [Ukrainians Nikolai Kornyeyev and Anotole Sergei] are more like father figures to me. I am a great fan of Nikolai. He came here without speaking a word of English and at first I thought he was an arrogant, aggressive sort of guy, but actually he is a super bloke. He really knows his stuff, and he cares a lot. He's taught me virtually everything I know at this level.

"The trouble is, there is not a lotof competition inthis country, mainly because it hasn't yet got a foothold in schools. Society takes kids towards the more popular sports like football, athletics, basketball and hockey. When it comes to wrestling, they say, 'What's that?'. It's good the Olympics are coming to London because it will highlight sports like this, the grass-roots sports."

While Lancashire remains the hub of British wrestling, there are 60 clubs nationwide with about 4,000 wrestlers, among them an increasing number of females. It is also featured in some 15 schools, and the BWA have teamed up with Network Rail's "No Messin'!" scheme to keep youngsters off the tracks – a real problem in the north, where there have been several fatalities – by introducing them to one of the five original Olympic sports, in which the simple aim is to force your opponent to the ground.

Matches take place on a mat and last for three periods of two minutes, with 30-second breaks. There are two styles of wrestling at the Games: Greco-Roman and freestyle. Britain competes only in the latter. In freestyle, competitors can use all parts of their body to execute moves and holds. In Greco-Roman, use of the legs to make contact is forbidden.

Says Morley: "The problem is the sport has suffered because so many people associate it with what they have seen on television, which is not Olympic wrestling. It needs greater exposure." This could come on 7 and 8 June, when the GB Cup is launched at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. It is the biggest tournament to be held in this country in a decade, and will attract more than 200 world-class athletes.

British wrestlers, including the top man, the Ukrainian-born Myroslav Dykan, who has been here since 2003 and is married to an Englishwoman, are currently attempting to qualify for Beijing. The final opportunity is in Poland next month. Rakhra, who is competing for the first time at European level as a senior, admits: "Beijing is a bit of a long shot, but my main aim is London. My hope is that, as 2012 approaches, everyone will begin to know what wrestling is all about, that it's not WWE and all that rubbish, but a real, genuine sport. It's up to us to do the business."

The number of wrestlers among the elite squad members at the Academy hobbling around in air-cast boots is testimony to the injuries that can be inflicted.Rakhra has suffered a dislocated elbow and a fractured ankle, fingers and nose.

His more immediate concern is that later this year he will undergo a heart operation. "It's nothing too serious, it doesn't affect my wrestling. I suffer from severe palpitations and they need to bring my heart rate down a bit, but I am told I'll be fine within a week or two and can carry on wrestling. After all, it's my life and I'm not going to let anyone take that away from me."

Message from an icon: Nikolai Kornyeyev

Wrestling is a very hard sport and in Britain it's probably the least professional of them all. I have been here for seven years and for six of them I was the only coach – and this for a population of 60 million. A small country like Lithuania has 20 to 25 coaches, while Russia has thousands and there are a million wrestlers.

If the sport is to become more popular it needs more support from the Government, not just money but more sports halls, more coaches.

Why is it never shown on television? Some say it is not exciting enough, but thereare many misconceptionsabout wrestling.

People think only in terms of WWE, big muscles, silly eyes and chairs flying around. This is not proper wrestling. For our sport you need brainwork, like a computer. It is like chess. One mistake and the opponent wins. You must practise, practise, practise, and this is what I tell Jatinder. He must use his brain.

We have had a Canada Cup champion and a Commonwealth champion since I have been coach. I think we have some good prospects for 2012 and Jatinder is one of the best. Beijing is probably too early for him, though; wrestling is a man's sport, and his body has not finished growing.

Wrestlers in the UK have one problem: poor basic technique. This is what Jatinder must work on. But every time he wrestles in a competition he makes good progress. It is like in primary school, you must learn before you graduate, and he has time to do this before London 2012.

He must listen to the coaches because we are here to help. Wrestling is a complex sport, you need a good defence, and he must also work on being more aggressive, and keep a cool brain to calculate when to attack and when to defend. He has a good spirit and is motivated and dedicated. But he must get experience. It is like a soldier going into battle.

Nikolai Kornyeyev of Ukraine has been Great Britain's national coach since 2002

Britain's Olympic ambition

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver elite-level support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.uk