The Indian Olympian Turned Accused Killer

Sushil Kumar medaled in 2008 and 2012, putting Indian wrestling back on the world stage. His fall exposed the dark side of the sport, where champions become criminals.

Sushmita Pathak

August 31, 2022

The Indian Olympian Turned Accused Killer
India’s Sushil Kumar during the wrestling event of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/GettyImages)

On the night of May 4, 2021, at the height of India’s deadly COVID-19 wave, a fight broke out in the shadows of Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, a mecca for wrestlers. Armed with wooden rods and hockey sticks, a group of men was thrashing a man who’d fallen to the ground. The victim — later discovered to be aspiring wrestler Sagar Dhankhar — cowered as his assailants rained blow after blow. “They hunted him like wild pigs,” a lawyer would later describe in court. A few feet away, others attacked Sagar’s friends. But one of them managed to escape and called the cops. 

The assault continued past midnight, stopping just before police arrived at the scene. Sagar was rushed to Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital, about three miles away, and then to a trauma center. In the morning, his family in Haryana got a phone call that Sagar had been in some sort of accident, his uncle Narender Dhankhar told me. Narender and his elder brother, Sagar’s father, rushed to the hospital. By the time they reached, Sagar had already died. The sight of his nephew still haunts Narender. “His body was covered in bruises and wounds. His head was beaten up badly,” he remembered. The cause of death was brain damage from being hit by a blunt object. 

Brawls of this nature break out in India almost every day. Most never make it beyond neighborhood chatter, much less the national news. This one, too, might have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for one of the alleged attackers. Among the group of assailants, police say, was Sushil Kumar, India’s most decorated Olympic champion and the biggest wrestling star the country had seen in more than half a century. He was also Sagar’s idol.