Jalandhar/Patiala, June 13 : For centuries, wrestling has been a popular spectator sport in India, captivating the imagination of villagers across the vast landscape with wrestlers in loincloth -- much like the ancient Roman gladiators - grappling for the attention and money of their patrons.
This year, over a billion Indians are pinning their Olympic hopes on three wrestlers who are bound for Beijing.
Since the times of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, wrestling duels have been held in the heat and dust of India with mud wrestling being the most popular.
The sport is especially popular in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Even today, when cricket's popularity has eclipsed all other sports, wrestling bouts in India's rural hinterland still draw huge crowds.
Kamaljit Singh, one of the popular wrestlers in Punjab, says the lure of financial security forces many of the promising youngsters to opt for mud wrestling instead of mat - which is the international norm.
"Wrestlers do not get any regular job or employment and at the end of the day you do want to secure your future. If someone fails to make it big then he has no future, no hope in this sport. Mud wrestling is more popular because there is money in it. There are lots of duels held in mud arenas and that ensures regular income for the wrestlers," said Singh.
'Wrestling on mat is very limited, with very few tournaments in a year. Because of that, young wrestlers do not take up wrestling on mat. If we will start having more competitions on mat, guys will start concentrating and practicing on mat and then we can surely win Olympic medals," added Singh.
Most Indian wrestlers blame their initial training in mud arenas for their failure to excel on the big stage -- where competitions are held on the mat.
The two forms of competition are starkly different. Mud duels can last for hours, until one of the wrestlers gives in, a bout on mat lasts for a maximum of six minutes, with three rounds of two minutes each in which the grappler has to score tactical points over his opponent.
Indian wrestlers have won several medals in the Asian Games and Commonwealth games, but have largely failed to replicate these successes on a global platform like the Olympics.
Still, Indian wrestlers have done better than some of their counterparts in other Olympic events. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won India's first individual medal after he clinched a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Kartar Singh, the general secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India and a former Asian Games gold medalist, blamed the myopic vision of sportsmen in India for the lack of success at major global sporting events.
"Our thinking is limited. All that we are concerned about is how to earn enough money to feed our stomachs and keep our jobs. The day we start thinking big, start thinking of the nation instead of petty things like feeding our stomachs, that day we will start winning medals," said Singh who was the only male sportsman in the Indian contingent to win an Asian games gold medal in the 1986 games in Seoul.
But this time, the Indian freestyle wrestlers are hopeful of bringing some cheer to the faces of their billion countrymen.
"We still have two months and the way our practice and performance is going, and the way the foreign coaches are working with us -- we are close to a medal. We will try our best to bring a medal home and make India proud," said Rajiv Tomar, who qualified in the 120 kilograms event for the Beijing Olympics.
The Indian wrestling federation has brought in three coaches from Georgia to give tactical training to the Olympic hopefuls.
Yogeshwar Dutt, another wrestler on his way to Beijing to participate in the 60 kg category, said the knowledge of the foreign coaches would come in handy while dealing with competitors from the former Soviet republics, who largely dominate the event.
"Foreign coaches are making a huge difference to our preparations. They know most of the wrestlers and their styles pretty well. They have come from the Russian region and most of the good wrestlers come from that region. From Asia, the good wrestlers come from Iran, Japan and Korea. They know which wrestler uses what technique and that is really helpful for us in our preparations," Dutt said.
Men's wrestling was a feature of the ancient Olympic games and has been on the program since the first modern Games in 1896.