Olympics: Indian men’s boxing dip blamed on selection policy - Hindustan Times
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Olympics: Indian men’s boxing dip blamed on selection policy

Jun 12, 2024 11:04 PM IST

For the first time in 40 years, India will send only two male boxers for the Olympics, while four women will go to Paris

Earlier this month, when World Championships silver medallist Amit Panghal defeated China’s Liu Chuang in the 51kg quarter-finals of the second World Qualifier in Bangkok, he joined Nishant Dev (71kg) as the only Indian male pugilists to qualify for the Paris Olympics.

World championships silver medallist Amit Panghal(PTI)
World championships silver medallist Amit Panghal(PTI)

While that significantly boosts India’s medal chances considering Panghal’s stature — he is the only Indian to win a World Championships silver medal — it also marked a moment to ponder over what has gone amiss in Indian boxing in this Olympics cycle. The last time India sent fewer than three male boxers to the Olympics was at 1984 Los Angeles when Kaur Singh and Jaslal Pradhan went.

At the Covid-hit 2021 Tokyo Olympics, five men donned Indian colours in the ring. Although none among Panghal (52kg), Manish Kaushik (63kg), Vikas Krishan (69kg), Ashish Kumar (75kg) and Satish Kumar (+91kg) could win a medal, India being represented in five of the eight categories spoke well of a nation whose male boxers have just one medal to show at the Games.

For Paris, in line with IOC’s aim for gender parity, the number of men’s weight categories has been reduced to seven from the Tokyo Games while the number for women has gone up by one to six. The three-year Olympic cycle saw India's women boxers win seven medals across two senior World Championships — five of them gold — and three medals at the Hangzhou Asian Games. By contrast, the men managed only four medals across two senior Worlds and a solitary bronze in Hangzhou.

“India has emerged as a solid force in women's boxing in this cycle and they deserve full credit for that. However, only two men making the cut speaks a lot about the system,” said Venkatesan Devarajan, the 1994 Worlds bronze medallist.

At the heart of the system Devarajan alludes to is the much-debated evaluation-based method that replaced the practice of selection trials to pick the national team. Sparring sessions went down, tactical and technical training took a backseat, and the focus shifted to building speed and endurance.

“I won’t say speed and endurance are secondary, but nothing can replace sparring. Boxers should be able to read their opponent’s body language and pre-empt their moves. They must have the heart and the will to take the punishment and reply in kind. All those skills can only be developed in the ring. I feel that's one area where we could have done better," he added.

Boxing Federation of India (BFI) adopted the new policy in February 2023 — introduced by then Irish High Performance Director Bernard Dunne — and implemented it in a year of the senior men and women World Championships and the Asian Games, the latter serving as an Olympic qualifier. The policy also witnessed the number of boxers per weight class being cut down in the camp, further reducing sparring options for elite boxers.

A senior boxer who was a regular in the Patiala camp also pointed at the acute lack of sparring. “What use are sprints if I can’t throw a good punch? There were hardly any technical inputs or tactical advice,” said the boxer, who didn’t wish to be named.

“That evaluation-based policy is the major reason for only two men making it to the Olympics,” said 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Akhil Kumar. “I don’t think hiring the foreign coach (Dunne) was a great idea because understanding the Indian boxers is a big task for a foreigner. Our training patterns, routines and mindset are very different. You can’t hammer in changes without taking everyone on board.”

Dunne resigned in March after none of the nine Indian boxers qualified at the first World Boxing Olympic Qualification in Busto Arsizio, Italy. Devarajan, who watched the bouts closely, noticed glaring technical deficiencies in the Indian boxers.

“Clearly, the Irish HPD didn’t know how to train a tall boxer or a short boxer. I doubt if he knew the strengths of our boxers. I saw very little intelligence in the bouts. It showed that they lacked proper technical and tactical insights. A coach should not be a team manager,” Devarajan said.

“As far as Amit and Nishant go, both have quality and can go deep. A lot depends on the draw too. Amit needs to build his power while Nishant needs to mature as a boxer.”

BFI is confident about the qualities of Panghal and Dev. “We would have liked 4-5 men to qualify, but those who are going are our best bets,” said Col. Arun Malik, BFI executive director.

“I don’t see anything wrong in the policy. It was always very transparent. Lack of results shouldn’t be blamed on it,” Malik added.

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