The year was 2008, in the middle of July, a couple of weeks before the Beijing Olympics. It was hot and humid. The monsoon, though sparse, had made it worse. The pugilists were warming up before another intense workout.
One by one, around 30 boxers filed into a dingy hall at the country’s premier sports institute – NIS Patiala. If the temperature outside was hovering around 36 degrees, inside it was nothing below 45 degrees. The stench of sweat and pain-relieving ointments hung heavy on the already sweltering room. The conditions in which our athletes trained, were appalling.
Thud-thud, boom-boom the pugilists went about their chores. Among them was Vijender, ensconced in a corner, dreaming of making it big in Beijing. Sweating it out, oblivious to discomfort and the stench of the tin-roofed hall. He didn’t know then that his was a path to history. A month later though, he stepped onto the podium, and, with his bronze, changed the course of his chosen sport.
“This is where we have to practice,” said Vijender a few months ago. “How do you expect our players to win medals when are given these shanties to train in? If the country is spending so much money to host Commonwealth Games, the athletes also must be taken care of. We should also get good facilities. Just look at where our elite practice.”
Fast forward to 2010, the first week of August; there are eight weeks left for the Commonwealth Games It was hot and humid, once again, but a heavy monsoon brought the temperature down a little. Still, the humidity was unbearable. For athletes, these were far from the ideal conditions for heavy practice. However, things have changed. An air-conditioned hall has replaced what was once the tin-roofed shanty that housed boxing arena.
No boxer was outside. There were no sounds of clangs and thuds piercing the air. They are now ensconced in a well-lit hall that is soundproof and has temperature control. There are rows o punching bags, mirrors and three rings on a wooden floor. And the pugilists are happy.
“This is the ideal conditions for practice,” said a well-pleased Vijender. “When we play in international competition we have to box in AC halls. It takes time for us to adjust. A shift from a tin-roofed hall to an AC hall is quite a transition!”
Now that the Olympic bronze medallist is practicing in a hall that he has been asking for in no uncertain terms, he is happy. With an eye on the Commonwealth Games, he is now training overtime for a piece of the yellow metal.
“I have to do well at home,” he said. “How many athletes get a chance to compete in a mega event at home? Not too many. This is a great opportunity,” he said.
Not just the boxing hall, even the fitness centre has improved tremendously. “It’s now like any other centre in the world,” said Vijender. “Now we can afford to go and box in the Talkatora Stadium a little late as well, because we wont need to adjust to the climate.”
Though the recent controversies have been a distraction, Vijender felt it would not hamper the boxers’ chances at the Games. “We are more focused on the Games, other things don’t matter,” he said.
As the D-Day is hurrying near, Vijender is quietly gearing up for the event of his life. He has never won a gold in any multi-discipline mega event. “The gold is what I am hoping for,” were his parting shots.
Born: October 29, 1985
Place of birth: Kalwas (5 km from Bhiwani, Haryana)
Class: Middleweight (75kg)
Height: 6 ft
Commonwealth Games 2006: Silver
Asian Games 2006: Bronze
Olympic Games 2008: Bronze
World Championships 2009: Bronze
Commonwealth Championships 2010: Gold