Indian boxing once again had no parent body – for the second time in four years. An ad hoc body ran the day-to-day affairs, like sending boxers to competitions under the AIBA flag and organising camps, but that was about it. For the bulk of the boxers, there was nowhere to go, nowhere to compete.
While organisations like Olympic Gold Quest managed to send the boxers in their roster, like Mary Kom and Sarita, for exposure trips to Liverpool, the rest weren’t as lucky. “There have been no competitions for four years, where and how do you spot talent?” said Viren Rasquinha, CEO of Olympic Gold Quest.
“For every other sport, we now have a second line of athletes we have identified and want them to get ready for the Olympics in 2020. Except boxing. There is zero bench strength and I don’t see any solution in sight.” It didn’t look like anyone cared. The possibility of India’s boxers not competing under the Indian flag, if they qualified for the Olympics in Rio in August 2016, loomed large.
Sports was never Sarbananda Sonowal’s priority, that was clear from the time he took charge of the Sports Ministry.
The fifty-two-year-old firebrand politician from Dibrugarh – he is now the chief minister of Assam – was branded “north-east’s sports minister” soon after he assumed charge. He pushed for a national sports university to be started in Manipur. Work on it began more than a year and a half after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a corpus of Rs 200 crore.
In 2016, he took the South Asian Games to the north-east – Guwahati and Shillong. In hindsight, it seemed like the perfect platform to strengthen his party’s (BJP) youth base in the north-east, and strengthen his candidature as the state’s future chief minister.
But even at the South Asian Games, which took place in Sonowal’s own state, the arrangements and infrastructure were nothing much to write about. There wasn’t a proper games village as such. Participating teams and their coaches and support staff had to make do with makeshift accommodation.
A group of Nepali officials had to spend nights in the banquet hall of a small hotel that was later converted into a dormitory for athletes to stay in. A bunch of Indian sprinters had to stay at a school campus during the event that was about 25 km away from their competition venue. And since the football pitch wasn’t even ready, the venue had to be shifted at the last minute.
It was evident from the onset that while Sonowal built his base for his promotion to post of Assam’s chief minister, sports would fade even further from his concerns. His presence at Shastri Bhavan (the office of the Union Sports Minister) was a bare minimum. He operated largely from his residence in Assam, while the sports secretary (Rajeev Yadav), and director general of the Sports Authority of India (Injeti Srinivas) in Delhi, took complete charge of the ministry.
In multiple press conferences, when Sonowal was asked about the ministry’s plans of clearing the administrative logjam in Indian boxing, he appeared clueless. With journalists and TV cameras present before them, the sports minister was briefed and updated by his secretary, before he made his statement, which invariably was: “The ad-hoc committee in charge of boxing is doing a good job.”
Sonowal had barely visited any national camp, though he always made it to functions and inaugurations involving famous sportspersons and politicians.
Coaches Anoop Kumar and Damodaran Chandralal sat at the dining hall at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. The two had just finished their evening sparring session with the women’s team that was preparing for the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in China. Steaming bowls of vegetable clear soup arrived from the canteen, as the two began their SWOT analysis. As Kumar added a dash of vinegar to his soup, he nodded to say, “It’s all going to finish, you understand?”
“What?” I asked.
“Amateur boxing,” he said. “This is the end. We’ve been around right from the beginning, so we might as well see the end too.”
“Our days ahead are very dark,” added Chandralal.
It took time for the two to open up, but when they did, you could sense the disappointment in their voices, seeing the fall of a sport they had built with their own hands over the last fifteen years. It wasn’t just the boxers who suffered as the system declined due to the administrative bickering. The coaches had no goals almost, and no direction.
“This is an Olympic year,” said Chandralal. “Do you know what that means?”
It meant every country was making its boxers spar with those of other countries at multiple exposure trips. It meant everything they ate, everything they drank, every exercise they did at the gym – each little thing was calculated and planned meticulously so that when it was time for the Olympic Games at Rio in August, the boxer would be at their fittest, meanest, best.
The world’s best boxers were hungry. Britain’s Nicola Adams, who won gold in Mary Kom’s weight category four years ago in London said, “I’ve been there, done that, worn the medal, stood at the podium. Now, I want to do it again.” Ireland’s Katie Taylor, who fought in the 60 kg category like Sarita, said, “It doesn’t matter if I am a five-time world champion. To become an Olympic champion again, first I have to qualify for the Olympics, and I’ve got to do that like every other boxer in the world.”
Back in India, Mary and Sarita largely sparred with the same set of boxers, with very little idea of what the competition outside was like. While the two were still India’s best bets, the rest of the world had moved on in their quest to produce fresh champions.
“Why have the standards of the rest of the countries improved?” asked Chandralal. “Because they have a system. They have planning, which we lack. We think only of today, it’s only about the next competition, everything is short-term. Whereas the other countries would have begun planning for the next Olympics. We really should be preparing for 2020. But the future is dark, and this is a fact we have to face. Those who intend to run the sport, but have no knowledge of what the ground reality is, think competitions are like festivals, so they try and show interest. But it’s the phase before the competitions that count.”
The fact that senior coaches were being sidelined left a bitter taste in the mouth. Junior coaches were preferred for AIBA coaching courses abroad, which helped them earn the tag of “star coach” and enabled them to travel with the boxers abroad. “I’ve got nothing against women coaches,” said Chandralal. “But these women who are now turning into coaches have also been our students. So my student is a star coach and I am not? Isn’t that humiliating? My experience of all these years does not count? And these coaches are going to talk boxing with Mary and Sarita? How does that even make sense?”
At Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium, where the coaching camps were conducted, the boxers and their coaches saw lucrative leagues of other sports – kabaddi and wrestling – yet another grim reminder of what perhaps could have been the case for their sport too. "I do the work of a labourer, madam," said Chandralal. "But how long can I continue this labour job? I don’t know," he trailed off, leaving the dining hall for his room upstairs.
The ad hoc body that ran boxing for the moment was headed by Kishen Narsi. In his seventies now, Narsi’s association with Indian boxing went back to the 1970s when he was an official for boxing at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok. Since then he’d been India’s representative at AIBA and had been a referee and judge at multiple World Championships, Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games. He is to Indian boxing what Raja Randhir Singh was to the International Olympic Committee – the man with the clout to make things happen and the power to give more opportunities to those of his country.
With his power, Narsi did manage to extend AIBA’s deadline for India to have fresh elections a few times. But even he admitted, ‘Let’s face it, we need an overhaul.’ Till the time of the Olympic qualifiers in Astana, Kazakhstan, the situation remained status quo.
Excerpted with permission from Shadow Fighter: Sarita Devi and Her Extraordinary Journey, Suprita Das, HarperCollins India.