Praise her or criticise her, Sarita Devi has caught the attention of the sporting world for standing up to scandalous officiating at the Asian Games in Incheon. The former world champion, one of the most elegant boxers India sent to Incheon and a ‘Super Mom’ much like MC Mary Kom, refused to accept that the semi-final bout she so dominated was awarded to her opponent Park Li-Na in a case of blatant judging bias. It was Korean cruelty in the ring all over again.
Sarita’s protest at the medal ceremony the next day — she refused to accept the bronze medal and gave it to Park and walked away — has shone the light on the shocking decisions being handed out in Incheon to favour Korean boxers. Although Sarita has since been made to apologise to the international body that has warned of possible suspension for her behaviour, the incident has highlighted an open secret in boxing.
Often, it is not the prospect of physical damage that scares good boxers, but the fear of the judges striking. Anyone who watched Sarita’s semi-final bout would agree. For all the power, poise and skill that make ‘amateur’ boxing a spectacle for its fans, a culture of quid pro quo is gnawing at the sport’s credibility. Feed a bronze here, a silver there to keep lesser federations happy. And if Korea are the hosts, ensure as many wins as possible seems to be the motto.
The Mongolia and the Philippines boxing chiefs have attacked the judging. The former threatened to walk out with his contingent and the latter bluntly said it was almost impossible to beat a South Korean.
Their boxing history as the host of major events is rather shameful, but the global sport’s authorities should take equal blame for allowing this to continue. At the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, home boxers won all 12 weight divisions! In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, boxing touched such a low it is spoken about every time there is a new controversy. In the light middleweight final, US boxer Roy Jones Jr dominated the final bout against Korea’s Park Si-hun — an independent record showed he landed 86 punches to Park’s 32.
But the verdict was in Park’s favour. While being given the medals, Park held Jones’ hand aloft, but the damage had been done. Every time such a controversy erupts, the boxing authorities throw the rule book at the athlete and point to his/her obligation to be sporting. The message seems to be ‘take it in your chin or suffer the consequences’.
The protests by Sarita and her distraught husband Thoiba Singh don’t make for a pretty picture. But it is clear that the boxer was left to fend for herself by the Indian sports officials, who vanished at the first signs of trouble but emerged to crowd around Mary Kom after her triumph.
With no Indian Olympic Association or boxing official around to support her effort to even lodge a protest, she had to virtually beg as she fell short of the $500 fee for the protest that had to be lodged within 30 minutes of the bout. And unlike a review that overturned the shocking judgement that gave Vikas Krishan a victory over US boxer Errol Spence in the London Olympics, the latest rules allow no review of judging.
The entire incident showed Indian sports officials in a poor light. Chef de Mission, Adille Sumariwalla, stepped in only 48 hours later, essentially to limit the damage and after the sports ministry demanded a report. Indian athletes being hung out to dry is nothing new. Sarita standing up to officialdom would have been worth the effort only if there is a serious bid to ensure honesty in a sport that exists because of the boxers’ sweat, blood and toil.