The nearly man of Indian boxing, Akhil Kumar could have been the poster boy even before Vijender Singh emerged on the scene. Akhil who won the Commonwealth Games gold in 2006 Melbourne game came agonizingly close to winning the first-ever medal in Boxing for India during the Beijing Olympics of 2008, but he was out-pointed by unheralded Veaceslav Gojan of Moldova 3-10 in the quarter-finals. However, it was his display in the pre-quarters, where he had shocked the then World champion Sergey Vodopoyanov on points to score the biggest upset of the competition. Post his retirement from the game, Akhil has been involved in coaching and has mentored many youngsters. Currently, serving in Haryana Police as ACP Gurugram, Kumar spoke at length on the prospect of Indian boxers at the Tokyo games.
For the first time, nine boxers have qualified for the Olympics which is unprecedented in Indian boxing? How do you look at such a big turnaround?
The number of boxers who have qualified for Tokyo is looking even greater because you are comparing it to the earlier eras where only a couple of boxers used to make it to the Olympics. However, I must tell you not much has changed in terms of participation as we have just five male boxers this time which has always been the case, more or less the same numbers of boxers used to go to the games. Yes, in our time there were no categories for female boxers and hence the success of female boxers gives it a very impressive look in terms of overall numbers. Earlier, there used to be more weight divisions in male categories which have been reducing over the years so in that sense it is still a good number.
How many medals do you seriously expect this time from such a huge contingent?
We have won just two medals which are well documented. One of course is by Vijender in 2008 and after that one more by Mary Kom in the London Olympics. This bunch has the ability to win at least two medals in Tokyo which will be a huge accomplishment. The reason for being so optimistic with this team is the superb coordination among the boxing federation, Sports Authority of India, and the players which was not been the case earlier. Everyone is working in the same direction. Earlier, there used to be different interests groups. Apart from that, there has been immense support from outside the boxing world as well. Especially the way Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi himself has gone out of his way to encourage and motivate the players. It makes a lot of difference in motivating the players for such a big event. The culture of sports is changing in this country. The awareness level among current boxers is incredible and you can sense that from the deep involvement of the players’ families in the whole affair of a boxer’s journey to the top. In our times, parents had no clue what we were doing, what we were eating.
What else has changed for the Indian boxers of late?
A fierce desire to win. That is the most significant change in terms of the attitude of Indian athletes over the last decade. I will give you the example of Abhinav Bindra. He had all the comforts of the world and yet his desire to win an Olympics gold was exemplary. And this element cannot be instilled by any coach of the world. We often give a lot of credit to the coaches for making many players a better version and improving their skill set but I have always believed that players are born and can’t be made by coaches. If that was the case, all the great coaches would have worked first on their kids in making them a champion.
So desire is something which is very essential to win an Olympics medal?
You are missing another crucial factor as well! The element of luck plays such a critical part in winning. Who knows it better than me! (Akhil missed an Olympics medal by a whisker in 2008 and an unfortunate foot injury in the eleventh hour ruled him out from the 2012 edition thus denying him a chance of redemption). If a bit of luck was on our side both me and Yogeshwer Dutt (the wrestler) would have won a medal in 2008 although Dutt did manage to win a bronze medal in London.
A lot is expected from Amit Panghal in 52 kg category. However, it is his first Olympics and is carrying a burden of expectations?
Even if it is his first Olympics, Amit has played enough big competitions like the Asian games and the CWG that he has a feel for the bigger stage like the Olympics. And, I must tell you that once a boxer is inside the ring, it doesn’t matter what is the nature of the competition. He or she only sees his rival and wants to win. And, I don’t buy this argument that you absolutely need the experience of Olympics games to win a medal. History is full of athletes who have become champions in their first attempt only. Look at Mary Kom’s success which was her first Games in London. A few years ago, I saw Amit losing to an Uzbek boxer in a big competition yet I was very impressed with the way he fought. There was something special in him that told me that he has got a great future. And, if the experience of playing in the Olympics was such a huge factor then Vikas Krishan should have won a medal by now.
Vikas is indeed the most experienced in this squad. Can he manage to break the jinx this time?
If you ask me, I rate his chances to win a medal as highest. Amit and others come after him only in my opinion. Besides, Mary Kom no one is as experienced as Vikas. Look at his performance at the CWG final in 2018 against an African opponent (he defeated Dieudonne Wilfried Seyi Ntsengue of Cameroon in the 75kg category final). Similarly, his show in the Asian Games where he played splendidly well makes him such a fine boxer. Besides that, Vikas has got the sharpest mind. He is very sharp in every aspect. May God bless us so that all the boxers may win a medal but if I were to pick one boxer, it has to be Vikas, even ahead of Mary since realistically speaking all of the nine boxers can’t win a medal each? Vikas is the number one prospect. He is playing in 69 kg from 75, is a southpaw, and has got all the aspects covered in his game. Amit is also doing well but Vikas is a touch ahead in the race of winning a medal in Tokyo.
How about other boxers besides Amit and Vikas who you think can surprise us?
Ashish Kumar (75kg)’s prospect of winning is better than Manish Kaushik’s (63kg). It is the toughest weight category in the world. The way he has performed to qualify for this event is remarkable. Of course, Manish too is a good boxer but there are some technical issues that no point in discussing now. Satish Kumar (+91kg) is a special boxer because of his jigra (lion-heartedness). He is the first one to qualify in the heavyweight category. I must tell you about another important influence which has come through MMA boxing (In boxing, you can only use punches and can only hit above the belt. In MMA, almost anything is fair game. It’s not just punches and kicks either). Now, you see a different kinds of boxers these days. Not to say that the boxers of our times were superior. Satish’s chances of winning a medal are very minimal but the way he has stunned so far, I consider him as a dark horse. Yet, I keep repeating myself saying that if there is someone with the brightest chance, it has to be Vikas.
Finally, what is the best-case scenario for India if all goes well?
I think two medals are for sure. This optimism comes from witnessing a lot of things that have changed beyond the ring as well. The federation is stronger now and people running the game which includes the sports ministry as well have made sure that the boxers don’t suffer because of other external factors and we must applaud them for that. In many ways, it’s like BCCI getting stronger and its positive influence on our national team’s fortunes. We always have had fine boxers earlier, even before our times but motivation level has gone up for the current crop. What is better than even PM asking personal questions to athletes before their departure? Otherwise, only if you could win a medal then only sportspersons were invited for a cup of tea and photo-op.
What about the chances of female boxers?
Simranjit Kaur’s (60kg)’s chances of winning a medal are the same as Vikas Krishan in the female group for me among the female boxers. Of course, Mary is the most experienced and she is in many ways similar to Bindra as she has got the same kind of hunger that very few people have. Lovlina Borogohain (69kg) is also a dark horse like Kaur who can surprise anyone.