Were there any stumbling blocks while researching for a sport like boxing?
Honestly, not too many. Thankfully, I’ve covered boxing as a reporter. Being one of few mainstream reporters who gave boxers attention in the early 2000s, I knew most of the prominent boxers, a few administrators and coaches. I was at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as well. Plus, having written a very detailed article on the history of Indian boxing for the International Journal of the History of Sport some years ago, a fair bit of research was already on my table when I started work. The rest was about connecting with boxers and others in their workspaces, and understanding the story of Bhiwani Junction. For the boxers too, it was a first; most were happy to give me time. Importantly, my approach was as a journalist and not as an expert. I think of the book as a very long article.
You’ve followed the careers of sportspersons across disciplines; tell us about the typical Indian boxer.
There is no one Indian boxer. The typical boxer in Haryana today is very different from the typical boxer in Haryana even seven years ago; this holds true of boxers from the rest of India. I have tried to explain this in one of the chapters — Vijender Singh’s bronze medal in Beijing changed the sport. Where top boxers would walk around in plain t-shirts and shorts earlier, an average boxer today wears branded attire and is in sync with fashion trends. The average, not typical, Indian boxer today is safe in the knowledge that good performances will lead to a good life. This is true in Haryana, where the state government has done great work for sportspersons. An average boxer also knows, after Vijender, Akhil and a couple of others did well internationally, that the systems are in place in India to make them world-class boxers too. Failure at the top level can’t be blamed on politics and lack of infrastructure and so on, because others have done well already. Also, as I discovered, boxers today are not looking for excuses to fail; they are looking to be good. More than one boxer has confided that after seeing Vijender and Vikas Krishan win medals at the world championships, they see themselves as good enough to repeat such feats. This holds true of young women boxers too, except that emulating Mary Kom’s achievements will take some doing.
Can the Bhiwani principle be replicated elsewhere?
Bhiwani profited because of a combination of factors. The first ever Sports Authority of India centre opened in Bhiwani in the 1980s, and Captain Hawa Singh, a two-time Asian Games champion, was handed the reins. That led to a lot of interest in the area, and then, as some of the boys started doing well, the interest spread. Jagdish Singh’s Bhiwani Boxing Club opened in the early 2000s, and that, coupled with the good performances of boxers from Bhiwani created the Bhiwani that we are talking about. The fire is spreading to other towns and districts because of the state government’s contribution. The Haryana model is the best, but is not difficult to replicate in other small towns. Will and intent are important. I haven’t seen either aspect in other state governments, or even the central government, in all these years, and don’t see this changing in the near future. The physicality of youngsters from Haryana also contributes — its athletes won nearly 40 per cent of India’s medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, across disciplines.
Where does India stand as far as procuring high-level, qualified experts, trainers and support staff for boxing?
It’s been happening, sporadically. The national team is well looked-after. I am hopeful of organisations like Olympic Gold Quest and Mittal Champions Trust. Though they haven’t gone against the administrators so far, I hope they can do so in the future. I hope they can take away athletes and take care of their training. Money is a key issue. Mary Kom’s story in the lead up to the Olympics is interesting because she wasn’t happy with the coaching provided by the women’s team coaches, approached private bodies, who invited British coach Charles Atkinson, and was trained in Pune, at the facilities hired by the Mumbai Fighters World Series Boxing team. Right now, most boxers are scared of cocking a snook at their bosses.
How much of an issue is funding in boxing? Have the purse strings loosened, post their accolades in the ring?
It will always be an issue. Should money be invested in a sport in the hope that results will come or should money come in after results trickle in?
As a journalist, I wish it were the former. But I don’t have the money. If I did, I would choose to wait for results so that I was sure of my investment. There are roadblocks, but it’s not as bad as in the past. I’ll cite the Haryana example again — at least the promises (which have been honoured) made by the Haryana government to its boxers and other sportspersons has helped.
Like Akhil and Vijender, will we see more Mary Koms?
In 2004-05, India was second only to North Korea in the Asian rankings. Our boxing bosses ignored the sport and hoped that our pre-eminent position would remain. This doesn’t work. Once it became evident that women’s boxing would be a part of the Olympics, other nations took the sport seriously. We hoped Mary and Sarita Devi would take care of all our problems. Talentwise, like in many other areas, we are fine. I am confident of young Sarjubala Devi. But for more Marys and a strong Indian team, systems need to be in place. For men’s and women’s boxing, I hope the political issues in Manipur can be sidetracked and athletes from the state can be nurtured. Haryana is on top right now, but it’s Manipur, with its incredible sporting culture and huge talent, that has the potential to take Indian sport higher.