This is perhaps one of the finest moments for Indian boxing. Three more pugilists qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games at the 2nd Asian Qualifying Tournament at Astana in Kazakhstan. With these three, the number of boxers who will travel to Beijing this summer has increased to five.
Asian Games bronze and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Vijender (75kg), who won the gold as well, was ecstatic. However, Dinesh (81kg) failed to win the final, but made the cut when he beat Mongolia's Mandakhbayar on Saturday. Jitender, who lost in the semifinals on Saturday, managed to win the third-place play-off against Castro Godfrey of Philippines on Sunday to secure the fifth berth. The other two berths had earlier gone to AL Lakra (57kg) and Akhil Kumar (54kg).
Vijender, the tall and gritty boxer from Bhiwani, beat Cho Deok-Jin in the final (he had lost to the Korean in the first Asian Qualifier in Bangkok last month). "Representing the country in Olympics is every boxer's dream and with every passing bout, it got more tense. Gold was a bonus," he said.
For chief national coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu, however, this is just the beginning of a tough four months for the qualifiers. "I couldn't have asked for more! But now that we have bagged the berths, the real test would be the Olympics," said Sandhu. "We should be travelling to Cuba for a training-cum-competition stint. This would be followed by high altitude training in Shilaru besides some events in Asia and Europe.
"When I took over as chief national coach last year, qualifying for the Olympics was my sole objective. Now our focus will shift towards training for the Games."
Sandhu, who replaced M Venu last year, seemed satisfied with the results so far. "I was expecting at least four spots, but we have secured five. I had faith in my boys," he said.
Even PKM Muralidharan Raja, secretary of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, said the association would be concentrating on the training programme. "Besides the training-cum-competition in Cuba, we will participate in an invitational meet in Taiwan, which will be open to only those who have qualified for the Olympics."
Jitender, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Akhil Kumar's protégé, too sounded excited. "After losing in the semifinals yesterday, I knew this would be my last chance and a pep talk from Akhil buoyed me today," he said.
Akhil, who is undergoing a rehabilitation programme for a broken wrist in South Africa, said, "As soon as I got the news that three more boxers had qualified, I was very excited." On learning that out of the five, four were from Bhiwani, he exclaimed, "This is amazing. Vijender would have qualified anyway. But I was overjoyed when Jitu (Jitender) told me even he had qualified."
Akhil, however, did not forget to thank coach Jagdish Singh of Bhiwani. "He might have missed out on the Dronacharya Award last year, but it's heartening to see four boxers qualifying from the same centre," he told HT from Durban.
With inputs from Saurabh Duggal in Chandigarh