In 2018, judoka Vijay Yadav was on an extraordinary path; just 22 then, the young fighter was fast making a name for himself on the international circuit. He was already the national champion in 60kg, but he was taking the fight to a bigger stage. From being ranked 60 in the world in Dec 2017, he finished 2018 as the world No 22, a ranking that would have given him automatic entry into the Olympics.
Then came the fall. After finishing fifth in the Asian Championships that year, big things were expected from Yadav at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. He lost in the first round, setting off a long slide that he could not have foreseen. He was removed from the government’s elite Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), and his entry to that year’s world championships was withdrawn.
“After not so encouraging performance in the Asian Games, federation was of the view that top players shouldn’t be send to Worlds where the competition would be more challenging,” Judo Federation of India (JFI) general secretary Man Mohan Jaswal said in explanation.
For Yadav, it was heartbreak.
“In the Asian Games, the man I lost to in the first round was the eventual champion,” Yadav said, sitting in the judo hall of a private gym in Delhi, sweating after a hard session. “It’s unfortunate that on the basis of one performance I was out of favour.“
In 2019, Yadav, the defending national championship faced another setback. For the first time in five years, he lost the 60kg title to Army’s Gulab Ali. By April last year, his world ranking had slipped to 150.
“I had almost given up,” Yadav said. But he didn’t.
Next week Yadav will be one of the five athletes shortlisted by Sports Authority of India (SAI) to compete at the Grand Slam competition in Budapest, Hungary from October 23-26, in preparation for 2021 Olympics. It will be his first international outing since December 2019.
He is dreaming again of the Olympics.
“But one odd tournament will not help improve ranking, we need to compete in six to eight top level competitions to stay in the race to earn quotas at this moment,” he said.
The next competition– the Asian Championship in Mongolia, is slated for November, while the international calendar will be announced sometime in January.
“Due to Covid19 things aren’t happening as planned. I have my fingers crossed,“ he said.
Yadav, whose father worked as a welder in a factory, comes from a low-income family from a small village called Mahuariya, 22km from Varanasi. His older brother, who is in the Army, has been the driving force behind Yadav’s sporting career. Yadav is used to fighting for every inch. When he lost the financial backing from the government last year, he appealed to the judo federation to continue to send him to international competitions on his own money on the basis of his national ranking. The request was turned down. As he saw his global ranking slip further and further, Yadav took the federation to court.
“It’s ridiculous that you have to knock on the doors of the court to compete with your own funds,” Yadav said.
He started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds, and friends and well-wishers eagerly pooled in to help the brawny judoka make it to the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo.
Though he exited in the first round, Yadav had started making inroads. Later in the year, he won a gold at the Commonwealth Judo Championship; he won the national trials defeating the same Army judoka he had lost the national title to in January; he went to the South Asian Games in Nepal in December and won another gold.
“Had there been a good support system he (Yadav) could have been in the top ten (in the world) at this time,” his coach Yashpal Solanki said.
When the lockdown happened in March, Yadav was one of the few athletes who still had access to facilities–he and a handful of other trainees simply continued their regime at the private gym in Delhi where they train, with the doors closed to the outside world.
“Since we were in isolation, a lot of the focus was on fitness,” Yadav said. “I trained with my roommate, who is also a national level judoka. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been cutting down on hard training to be ready for the first competition of the season.”
Now he will get to test exactly where he stands, and how much work is left to be done when he pulls on his Judogi in Budapest.