In 2012, seven Indian boxers made the London Olympic cut, following up on Vijender Singh’s monumental bronze medal in Beijing. Four years since India’s largest boxing contingent fought for Olympic pride, the upcoming Rio edition will see a complete antithesis.
With only one pugilist in Shiva Thapa having earned a Rio 2016 slot, it’s been a far cry from the lofty heights set in the early 2000’s. London’s bronze medallist, Mary Kom’s failure to qualify for Rio underlined the downfall of Indian boxing from being Asia’s top amateur nation to relative obscurity.
Several reasons can be attributed to this drastic demise. The major one is the absence of a national governing body for Indian boxing. Earlier in 2013, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) permanently suspended the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF) and later Boxing India (BI), after a failure to host transparent elections.
A group of poor administrators failing to garner a solution has resulted in the fall of a potentially multiple medal winning sport in India. One pugilist stuck between legitimacy battles and high-handedness is Mary Kom’s 51 kg compatriot Pinki Jangra.
Won two major titles in two years, still not chosen for Rio qualifiers
Despite successfully defeating Mary Kom several times and matching her Rio Olympic trial performances, the younger and fitter Jangra was not given a single qualification attempt. Their rivalry reached a collision course when Mary refused to acknowledge Pinki’s name at a press conference.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Pinki expressed her sheer disappointment. She said, “If form is a criterion then there is no doubt that I should’ve been granted at least one spot. I was told throughout that I would get a chance by the association but that never happened. Even during the second last qualifier, they selected Mary Kom, despite the fact that she had failed to qualify on multiple occasions. She was chosen because she was more popular and there are no two ways about it.”
In 2014, Pinki destroyed an aging Mary Kom at the Senior Commonwealth Games trials in Patiala. An eventual bronze medal in Glasgow highlighted a small yet meteoric shift at the top of the 51 kg rankings. However, subsequent instances of ignorance saw Pinki miss out on an equal chance to fight for a Rio slot.
She added, “There were three of us – me, Mary Kom and Sarjubala, but the trials were never conducted. Upon asking for trials, the ad-hoc committee used to delay it every time to the point that we knew that it was Mary Kom who was going to go.”
Ever since the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Mary Kom has failed to win any international tournament. On the other hand, Pinki decimated her opposition at the President’s Cup to win Gold in Indonesia. With boxers from 30 different countries participating, the 26-year old announced herself as the pugilist to beat in the 51 kg category.
Her results were clearly not acknowledged by India’s uncertified boxing body. Mary Kom’s victory against Sarjubala at the South Asian Games test event more or less sealed her qualification berth. But, there were several questions raised about the selection process.
Controversy over nature of trials
On January 14, Pinki was called to Karnail stadium to fight Sarjubala to determine who would participate in the South Asian Games. However, the results of the bout were never announced. Backed by the Railways, AIBA immediately spotted the misdemeanour and called for a re-trial the next day. Having been the better boxer, she had to fight again to prove a point. One of the judges, who didn’t want to reveal his name said, “We were specifically told by the ad-hoc committee not to reveal the results, but the fight did tilt Pinki’s way.”
With no clarity over the actual decision, Pinki lost the second bout with doubts raised over the decision. Upon questioning, it was found out that two of the five umpires were not qualified to be judging the bout.
The Railways Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) requested the ad-hoc committee to let Pinki fight for her state Haryana. However, for some reason, she was not granted permission, despite P Basumatry doing the same for Tamil Nadu and Services.
Pinki added, “I congratulate Mary Kom for winning that event and she is a great boxer. However, it was clear that they were adamant not to select me because Mary was a celebrated figure. How can you send someone to qualification tournaments based on 50/50 performances Especially when they have been failing every time, it’s only fair to give the other two a chance.”
It’s not only recently that Pinki had a successful time against Mary. Even in 2012 and 2013, she defeated the 33-year old in two back to back trials. She added, “Upon Mary failing twice, I thought they would give me a chance as I had almost won the trials. They also told me that there will definitely be trials for the last qualified as it was India’s only chance. However, whenever I went to meet the ad-hoc committee members, they would keep telling me trials would happen.”
With one week to go for the ‘last chance’ World Championship qualifier, Pinki figured out that her 2016 Rio Olympic dream was all but over. Five days prior to the qualifiers, Mary Kom was announced as the brand ambassador of AIBA, further strengthening her doubts. However, after repeated requests, she was granted the option of a trial.
In a bizarre turn of events, instead of facing Mary Kom, she was asked to face a higher weight category boxer in Nikhat Zareen. An absurd proposition as both fighters had never crossed roads, but gathering her composure, Pinki comfortably won the match before squaring off against Mary.
On April 18, Mary defeated Pinki to secure the Olympic slot. However, several onlookers said the fight tilted towards Pinki. However, as per the rules, Pinki should’ve been going to world’s in the 54 kg category, but she wasn’t allowed in that weight category either.
A source close to AIBA said, “If Pinki defeated Nikhat, she should’ve gone. It was as per the ad-hoc committee’s rules. But it really doesn’t make sense, if you were going to select Nikhat, why did you make her fight Pinki. That question is yet to be answered. It seemed like an attempt to tire the opponent.”
Absence of a governing body is why Indian boxing is suffering: Pinki
Pinki added, “Ever since the IBF has been banned it’s been very difficult for us as we only play one or two international tournaments a year as compared 5-7 before 2012. Hence, it’s not only reward for somebody’s hard work but also important for our exposure.”
Ever since the board’s derecognition, it’s been hard for pugilists to succeed on the international front, considering the lack of participation in foreign countries. According to Pinki, there are only one or two camps organised in a year for top boxers
She added, “It’s evident that we have a strong talent pool, but the absence of a federation has affected our sport and the boxers a lot. The association is divided into factions, they keep fighting internally rather than helping us. If you want to perform, you will have to depend on an organisation to pick you up.”
There can be no questions raised about Mary Kom’s contribution to women’s boxing. Her bronze medal in London was pivotal for a generation of young girls looking to make their name in the sport. Her countless sacrifices against an ultra-repressive society to become one of the world’s best boxers can never be forgotten. However, the derecognised governing body’s lacklustre approach to her selection embodies Indian boxing’s current administrative problems.Published 25 May 2016, 20:13 IST