Tokyo 2020 was seen as the Olympics where Indian boxing would shine on the global stage, much like some of the boxing powerhouses in the world. But in turn, it was a reality check for many as pugilists crumbled under pressure. If things have to improve by Paris 2024, the work needs to start now.
Every Olympics there are a set of sports where the Indians are expected to do well, and boxing certainly ranks among the top. This year in Tokyo as many as nine pugilists were in the fray, and if one assessed their rank and form before the event, most of them should have been in medal contention. But given the unpredictable nature of the sport, two-three medals from the competition would have been a just result, with the rest of the boxers at least making it to the quarter-finals.
But as it turned out, only Lovlina Borgohain (World no. 5) could manage to live up to the expectations and won a bronze, after she beat Chinese Taipei's Chen Nien-chen 4-1 in the quarter-finals of the women's welterweight category. The boxer from Assam lost her semis bout to Turkey's Busenaz Surmeneli, who went on to win a gold in the category. Apart from Borgohain, it was nothing short of a disappointment from the other boxers.
Legendary MC Mary Kom (World no.7 in 51kg category) could not progress beyond the Round of 16 after a tough bout against Lorena Valencia of Colombia and lost 2-3. Similar was the case with Simrajit (World No.4 in 60 kg category), who after getting a bye in the first round, went down to Seesondee of Thailand 0-5. Pooja Rani (World No.8 in 75kg category) bowed out of the competition after a comprehensive 0-5 loss to China's Li Q in the quarters.
The men's section fared worse. All the five boxers combined, they won a solitary bout. Satish Kumar (World No.9 in +91kg) toppled Jamaica's Ricardo Brown 4-1 but lost to Uzbek Bakhodir Jalolov in quarters 0-5. Ashish Kumar (World No.9 in 75kg category) was no match for his Chinese opponent Touheta and lost 0-5 in the first round. Vikas Krishan (World No.10 in 69 kg) too was sent packing in the opening round by Japanese Sewon Okazawa 0-5. Similar was the story with Manish Kaushik (World No.18 in 63kg class), who lost his opening bout against Great Britain's L McCormack 1-4.
If this humiliation wasn't enough, India's biggest hope and World No.1 in men's 52kg category, Amit Panghal looked rather ordinary in his second-round clash versus Colombia Yuberten Martinez and conceded the match meekly, 1-4. After getting a bye in the first round, chances of him clinching a medal looked promising, but what transpired in the second round clash is beyond imagination. The experienced Colombian dished out close-range punches from the start of the match, which pushed Panghal out of the contest fairly early. Martinez was relentless with his uppercuts which landed on target and gave little time for the Indian to recover.
It wasn't like Panghal had sustained any injury or wasn't prepared well for the competition, but somehow managed to fail at a time when it mattered the most. In fact, the World Championship silver medalist had shown decent form coming into the Games. Prior to the Olympics, the Indian pugilist took part in the Asian Boxing Championships in May, held in Dubai, and won silver there too. In the Governor's Cup in Russia, he won bronze by beating local favorite Tamir Galonov in quarters.
Not only that, all the boxers including Panghal got decent practice in Italy just before heading to Japan for the Olympics. If at all there was any glitch in the technique, High-performance Director Santiago Nieva had pointed out before leaving for Tokyo, it had been ironed out. Nieva had told PTI, "Lack of strength in close range boxing, that was an issue. Amit is a fantastic long-range boxer and we have made sure that he improved in close range as well. He is not the tallest boxer in his category, so he had to be better in close-range boxing."
If all things were taken care of before Tokyo, then what went wrong? A former coach of repute, who was with the Indian team till a few years back, tried to assess how the men's team, particularly Panghal boxed. He wasn't all that impressed. In an exclusive chat with SportCafe, the coach also expressed his views on how we need to prepare for Paris 2024 already.
"It was a no bout from Panghal, actually. We, like a million others, were surprised with how things panned out for him. He looked under a lot of pressure; maybe because he had lost to the Colombian boxer previously, and that played on his mind," the coach said on condition of anonymity.
Not believing in criticism of the talented boxers, the former coach wasted no time in saying that coaches must do everything to reduce the burden on their wards. "Look, in my opinion, we need to take some pressure off our boxers. Abstain from making big promises at the end of every Olympics, and just work hard for medals. We keep hearing things like 'wait for the next time', and the next time doesn't come. I think such statements put undue pressure on the boxers."
Not only for Paris Games but work with younger boxers should already be underway, who could potentially win medals in 2028, opines the coach. "We just need to keep things simple. In boxing, I have a simple theory, catch 'em young. We need to give the boxers adequate years before we send them to competitions like the Olympics. And then have as many tournaments -- national and international -- as you can which will create a big pool of boxers for you. To get the results, you need 7-8 boxers in each category, which is not that difficult to achieve.
"It is time for the stakeholders to start the work NOW," the coach concluded.
Even though the suggestions are worth looking at, it is certainly not all that simple with Indian sports. We are already in the next Olympic cycle with the marquee event only three years away now. And to mount problems for Indian boxing, foreign coaches at the helm of affairs -- Raffaele Bergamasco and Santiago Nieva -- are working on an extension of three months. In all probability, the duo will be replaced by new coaches, which means the boxers could take some time adjusting to their ways. Hopefully, things work out well in time for Paris 2024 and beyond.