Four years ago, if one had asked Akhil Kumar or Vijender about their chances at the Olympics, they would have said with a shrug, "Let's see. It's my first Olympics." Quiz them now and pat comes the reply, "We will do something as we have beaten the best." Four years have transformed them from also-ran to favourites. The scars on the faces remind them of the pain they have endured over the years, of the hard work dedicated to a pursuit they call life. Favourable results against some of the world's best have heightened their self-confidence. The self-belief has now rubbed on to the other three pugilists — Jitender, Dinesh and AL Lakra.
Training to fly
Early morning at NIS, Patiala is a different experience. The world is yet to rise, but for the boxers it's work as usual. Filing out of their rooms, they walk around the compound as if in a daze. Gradually, the steps become brisk and they break into a run on the metalled alleys. After several rounds and sweat seeping out of their tracksuits, they work out for another two hours --- jogging, gymming, skipping and punching. As Vijender pounds the bag, 100 punches a second, the image of an Olympic medal races through his mind - one that's missing from his kitty. He has already won a medal at the Commonwealth and Asian Games and he has already beaten an Olympic gold medallist on way to the qualifying gold. "I have been focused all this while and I don't want to do anything silly now," he says.Commonwealth gold medallist Akhil too believes India stand a better chance this time. "With a little bit of luck, one of us should do India proud," he says modestly. Talking of luck, the pugilists know what it means to them. Right from the draw to a feeble punch that might open a cut (enough for the referee to stop the contest), luck has a part to play. But this time, luck is not the only ally they are banking upon.
As coach G.S. Sandhu and B.I. Fernandes blow their whistles, the morning workout comes to an end after a session with the skipping rope. As Jitender skips, he yells, "Bhai, hum kisi se kam nehi (Brother, we are inferior to none)."
Fighting the scales
Besides punching, amateur boxing is all about fighting the scales. Such is the pressure that at times they don't even drink water. "Sometimes, we have to reduce a kg in eight hours," says Jitender, who was overweight by 2 kg in 51kg. Sundays are set aside for revelry but feasting is a strict no-no. "We have to follow a strict regimen to keep our weight in check," says Lakra who has to weigh 57kg at the time of weigh-in.
A little help from friends
Jitender twists an ankle during a sparring session. South African physio Heath Mathews runs up to him and checks the ankle. Writhing in pain, Jitender twitches his face. "Is it serious?" Cuban coach Fernandes inquires, visibly worried. Akhil too checks the ankle. A hush descends.
"These things keep happening," says Mathews, the Mittal Trust physio who is in Patiala to work with Akhil's rehabilitation programme. "He has added to our confidence. His only crime is he is not professional." After a pause, Akhil remarks, "He works from his heart." Mathews has been taking care of Akhil's degenerative tissue in his right wrist for the past 12 months. "I follow him blindly," says Akhil, who had to shed 8kg to get into his weight category (54kg). A cup of coffee and ginseng help in reducing weight. How? Mathews chips in, "They act as stimulants and reduce hunger."
Spurring them on
If Mathews has been a great help, ignoring the sparring partners would be a crime. An integral part of the training programme, they are boxers who gauge the fitness and stamina of the five. "They are not punching bags, they fight back. This time we have some excellent sparring partners," says coach Sandhu. With champion boxers like Diwakar Prasad, Sanjay Kolte, Abhishek Shyam (a southpaw), J.S. Patel and Manjit Singh in the ranks, one can imagine what the five have had to endure.
The boxers are effusive in showering praise on their sparring partners. "They act as morale boosters. They tell us where I went wrong and inspire us to be better boxers," says Vijender.
As the sun goes down, the five return to their den. After a soothing massage and hearty dinner, it's time to dream once again.
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Some important facts
Indian boxers made their debut at the London Olympics.
There was no Indian participation in the sport during this period.
40 Indian boxers, including five in the Beijing edition, have represented the country in the Games.
5 boxers have represented the country in two successive editions of the Games.
B. Bose (1948, 1952), Gurcharan Singh (1996, 2000), Jatinder Kumar (2000, 2004), Akhil Kumar (2004, 2008), Vijender Kumar (2004, 2008).
Only two boxers have entered the Olympics quarterfinals: R. Norris at the 1952 Olympics, Gurcharan Singh at the 2000 Olympics.
1948 London Olympics: 7
R.N. Bhatta (51kg), Babu Lal (54kg), B. Bose (57kg), G. Raymond (60kg), R. Cranston (69kg), J. Nuttall (75kg), M. Joachim (81kg).
1952 Helsinki Olympics 4
S. Mazumdar (51kg), B. Bose (57kg), R. Norris (69kg), O. Ward (81kg).
1972 Munich Olympics 3
C. Naryanan (51kg), M. Vennu (60kg), Mehtab Singh (81kg).
1976 Montreal Olympics 2
S.K. Rai (57kg), C.C. Machiah (64kg).
1980 Mexico Olympics 3
B.S. Thappa (48kg), A. Dass (54kg), G. Manoharan (57kg).
1984 Los Angles Olympics 2
JR Pradhan (64kg), Kaur Singh (91kg)
1988 Seoul Olympics 3
M. Pingle (48kg), S. Birajdar (54kg), John William (57kg).
1992 Barcelona Olympics 5
(Qualifying system was introduced for the first time) Rajinder Parsad (48kg), D.S. Yadav (51kg), V. Devrajan (54kg), Narinder Bisht (57kg), Sandeep Kumar (69kg).
1996 Atlanta Olympics 3
Debondera Thapa (48kg), Gurcharan Singh (81kg), Labh Singh (91kg).
2000 Sydney Olympics 4
S. Suresh (48kg), N.G. Dingko Singh (54kg), Jitender Kumar (75kg), Gurcharan Singh (81kg).
2004: Athens Olympics 4
Akhil Kumar (51kg), Diwakar Prasad (54kg), Vijender Singh (64kg), Jatinder Kumar (81kg).
2008: Beijing Olympics 5
Jitender Kumar (51kg), Akhil Kumar (54kg), A.S. Lakra (57kg), Vijender Singh (75kg), Dinesh Kumar (81kg).