Will It Be A Box-Office Hit?

Just our incredible boxing contingent could smash India’s Olympic medal record.

Until 2008, India’s best performance at a single edition of the Olympic Games was a grand total of two medals at Helsinki 1952 – the men’s hockey team (gold) and KD Jadhav, the wrestler (bronze) won medals. Beijing 2008 raised the number to three, with Abhinav Bindra’s gold and Sushil Kumar and Vijender Singh’s bronzes. A 50 per cent increase, sure, but it really isn’t much.

But then again, we have agreed, India is not a ‘sporting’ nation. We just don’t have the kind of culture that Australia or America or Germany or Kenya (or China, but that’s a different story) have. We have accepted that it took India longer to win an individual gold than it took Suriname (in 1988). We will trust our cricketers to make us happy once in a while. Viswanathan Anand can do his geeky stuff, not that we care. And once every four years, yet another edition of the Games will go by with India featuring nearabouts the bottom – a country of a billion people and this!

But 2012 could see India double or even treble its ‘best-ever’ number in London. And if things don’t go completely against expectations, the boxing contingent alone can match, or even cross the three-medals-in-one-Olympics mark.

But first, a brief synopsis of our Olympic dreams.

In shooting, 11 people – men and women – have qualified. Among them are Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, world record-holder Gagan Narang and world champion trap shooter, Ronjan Sodhi.

Bindra says that there is but a hair’s breadth of difference between an Olympic gold and obscurity. It’s a matter of one shot going awry, a slight draft of wind having a say, one stray thought at the wrong time. In spite of those terrifying odds, which after all every contestant must face, I’d say there are at least two, maybe even three, medals in store for India in the shooting arena. First, in the men’s 10-metre air rifle competition in which Bindra and Narang will both compete. Then in the men’s air rifle pairs, involving the same two gentlemen again. And finally, in the men’s double trap, in which Sodhi has been among the best in the world for some time now.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza together won the French Open mixed doubles title earlier this year, but bloated egos and the spineless officialdom have ensured that they don’t play together. Instead, Leander Paes will play with Sania. Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna are also up there among the strong single-nation men’s doubles units going around. If the build-up had been smoother, we wouldn’t have needed to hedge our bets, but even now, on sheer ability, one, or even two podium finishes can’t be ruled out.

Then there are Sushil Kumar, the Beijing Olympics bronze medallist, and Yogeshwar Dutt leading the wrestling contingent. Saina Nehwal, as good as she has ever been, and the Jwala Gutta-V Diju combine for the mixed doubles, are among the best badminton players in the world. Vikas Gowda and Krishna Poonia are not too far behind the best discus throwers in the world either. And in Laishram Bombayla Devi, Deepika Kumari and Chekrovolu Swuro, India have archers who are up there, listed among the best. The men’s archery team isn’t too bad either.

So does it look like a strong enough campaign for a change? You bet it does! And we haven’t even come to the boxers yet.

Seven men and one woman. One of them, MC Mary Kom.

Mary, for the best part of her boxing life, has been a world champion. Women’s boxing only took off towards the late Nineties and that was when the pint-sized Mary picked up her running shoes (she used to run like the wind, her school teachers say), and raced her way to the academy (took a bus actually) run by L Ibomcha Singh, the Kesuke Miyagi-like man who has trained upwards of 3,000 wannabe boxers over the years. Ibomcha didn’t want to take her in, seeing her extremely small stature. Mary sat down and cried and cried and refused to leave. The next bus back to her village of Moirang was the next day, so Ibomcha relented and let Mary train. From that to ‘Magnificent’ Mary has been quite a journey. Along the way, she has been world champion five times in the 45-48 kg range, given birth to twins, took a two-year break, returned heavier, moved to a higher weight category (51 kg – the lowest at the Olympics), became the Asian champion again in 2012, and almost failed to qualify for the London Olympics.

So how would you rate Mary’s chances of making it to the podium in London? The almost-botched qualification attempt, perhaps your most recent memory of her, doesn’t promise much. But I like to think of it as a blip, and prefer to remember the years in the lead up to the London qualification. Mary might not have another chance. This is the first time women’s boxing is a part of the Olympics, and Mary might not be quite young enough to make a strong statement in 2016. This is what she has lived for all these years. It doesn’t matter if she is not at her best; I back her to get there, in time, one last time.

On to the seven men. Vijender, the Boy from Bhiwani. Today, his peers scorn him for “trimming his eyebrows” and spending “more time in studios than in the ring”, but you need to visit the tiny village of Kaluwas near Bhiwani to see where he has come up from. His story, like those of many other boxers, is one of zid and obsession, dedication and spirit. And today, achievement.

Of the seven men in the fray in London, Vijender (75 kg), Jai Bhagwan (60 kg), Manoj Kumar (64 kg), Vikas Krishan (69 kg) and Sumit Sangwan (81 kg) are all from Haryana, which has emerged as India’s strongest sporting centre of excellence in recent years. Is it something in the air? Perhaps. But there’s a lot more to it – something we’ll leave for another day. But we were talking about zid, and that’s probably the one thing that has pushed these boxers, along with the two non-Haryanvis on the team – Devendro Singh (49 kg) and Shiva Thapa (56 kg) – all the way to London.

Photo Courtesy-Akhil Kumar

Vijender is an Olympic and world championship bronze medallist as well as a former world No 1 for his category. Vikas, 20 years old right now, is the only other Indian world championship medallist. To me, there isn’t a better boxer in the country at the moment. Those who have seen Vikas box, talk about his brains more than his speed or punching ability. TL Gupta, a coach with the national team, says, “Vikas will go much further than Vijender.” PKM Raja, Secretary of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation says, “I haven’t seen a more intelligent boxer than Vikas”. A ringside seat during his practice session at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala convinces me that the boy is brilliant with his defence. Even if he doesn’t throw a lot of punches, he lands the ones he does. And Vikas will win bouts by virtue of his almost watertight guard – the “shell”, in boxing parlance. He confesses, “As a youngster, I used to be scared of being hurt. I didn’t want to fight, but it was impossible to back out. So I focused on my defence and that’s made me who I am”.

Would you bet against these two on a podium finish in London? Or Mary? I also think that the likes of Manoj and Shiva have as strong a chance of landing a medal as not.

And where have we reached at the end of all this crystal ball-gazing? Close to ten medals. That sounds like too many? We aren’t used to dreaming so big after all. And yes, this is an optimistic estimate. Still, why not dream? Four medals will better India’s best effort till date, and the boxers look good to take up that responsibility on their own.

Yes, it’s a good time to be backing Olympic sports in India. We have as good a set of athletes as we have ever had, and that was reflected in India’s campaigns at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, both held in 2010. Now for the big one. And this time, India looks good to do more than just make up the numbers.

Image Courtesy – Shubhashish Roy

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