A country’s first ever individual Olympic gold medal in a particular sport is worthy of celebration. We are still in awe of Abhinav Bindra’s thrilling show at the shooting range during 2008 Beijing Games, culminating in the men’s 10m air rifle gold. India’s first individual title created ripples of joy across the nation.
Boxing official Kishen Narsi recalls a similar path-breaking moment in the ring during 1992 Barcelona. Ireland’s first ever boxing gold was won by welterweight fighter Michael Carruth (red corner), defeating Juan Hernandez of Cuba (blue corner) in the final. The Indian officiated the bout, raised the boxer’s hand to signal a famous victory and then watched as the champion leap in ecstasy when the feeling sunk in. “He jumped up and down around the ring after the verdict was announced, it showed what the win meant. The photo made the front page of newspapers in Ireland.”
The Barcelona assignment was his third Olympic appearance back-to-back as referee-judge (after 1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul). “I did the finals each time.” Narsi was designated as an International Technical Official (ITO) Jury Member for 2008 Beijing when Vijender Singh grabbed India’s first ever boxing medal (middleweight class bronze).
Four years later Mary Kom stepped on the podium in London to receive a bronze medal in the flyweight class, watched from a distance by a fellow Indian, designated by boxing’s world body, AIBA, as the Jury Chairman. “After the medal ceremony, she came towards where I was standing, congratulations followed, for which I got a rap. We are not permitted to interact with competitors, especially not with an Indian boxer.” London had a substantial Indian presence in the stands, so the celebrations continued for a while.
He was not in 2016 Rio de Janeiro. Now at 81 years and active physically and mentally due to walking and online bridge, Narsi is lending expertise and experience, via webinars, to boxing officials involved with the conduct of 2021 Tokyo competition. “The discussions are about the operations part,” he informs, in his capacity as the Competitions Chairman (Asia). Mary Kom is among the fighters, chasing a flyweight medal of a different colour. She is the senior-most in a nine-member squad of men and women. “Mary Kom is among the seeds in her category (seventh) and can do it. She had fought well in the semi-finals at London, could have gone all the way but was drawn to meet Nicola Adams of England. Fighting a local boxer in London is not easy (Nicola won the gold and hit the headlines).”
Speaking from his home in Mumbai, the former Bombay University boxer whose officiating work included World Cups and Asian Games, talked about the impact of Vijender’s breakthrough at Beijing on the sport back home. Five boxers represented India at 2008 Games.
“The starting point for success was the procedure followed for selection, involving five very competitive weight categories. The training methodology resulted in four boxers from Haryana (Vijender, Akhil Kumar, Jitender Kumar, Dinesh Kumar) jelling as a team, with Anthesh Lakra as the fifth boxer. They backed each other, grew confident with each round won. Akhil is a hard-worker with a chip on his shoulder, he defeated a world champion from Russia (Sergey Vodopyanov) in the second round and boosted teammates’ confidence before going out in the quarterfinals.”
Narsi recalled: “Jitender had beaten an Uzbekistan opponent (Tulashboy
Doniyorov) earlier which was considered an achievement for a boxer from India. Akhil’s win over the Russian world champion resulted in the Indian camp turning upbeat. It was a question of how far Vijender Singh could go. By the time he reached the semi-final round against a Cuban boxer (Emilio Correa), Abhinav Bindra had won the shooting gold, Sushil Kumar won a bronze in wrestling. Vijender stepped into the ring in this mood among Indians across the Games. He lost a hard-fought bout, returned with a first-ever Olympic boxing medal. India has made strides from then on.” Tokyo will have nine fighters in the ring, among whom flyweight Amit Panghal, the Asian champion, is ranked world number one in 52kg class.
Boxing at the Olympics has survived tumultuous moments, from uproar linked to bout verdicts and amendments to rules. Simultaneously, the sport also soared in television ratings due to performances from amateur fighters, fame earned in the Olympics ring attracted promoters luring these gold medallists to turn pro. Boxers vying for medals do not wear protective headgear in the ring. The Tokyo Games is being held when the sport’s world body, AIBA, stands suspended over various allegations, ethical and financial, by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Crucial decisions are taken by a boxing task force set up in 2019. Talking about controversial ring decisions from the past, Narsi remembers a light heavyweight bout at 1984 LA which left a bitter taste.
He recalled: “Evander Holyfield was disqualified by the Yugoslav referee (Gligorijee Novicic), who decided on the basis of a low blow on his rival (New Zealander Kevin Barry). Later on, it came to the knowledge of everyone that had Holyfield won, his next opponent for the gold medal was a boxer from the referee’s own nation (Anton Josipovic), who was crowned the champion without fighting (the American disqualified and the New Zealander ruled out on medical reasons after getting knocked out). Holyfield was given the bronze.
The decision was not well received by the Americans.” The fighters involved took the decision sportingly. Josipovic urged the American, wearing the light heavyweight bronze medal, to join him on the podium after the ceremony. Holyfield became popular at home for showing composure despite an unfair decision, turned pro soon after and became a rage as a heavyweight.
Narsi’s first glimpse of the Games happened in 1976 Montreal, when he travelled to Canada as a tourist to watch boxing action. “Captain Aspy Adajania (later to become Indian Amateur Boxing Federation’s secretary) and I bought tickets to various events. Boxing had 11 weight categories then. Famous names we watched were Cuba’s heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, USA’s light welterweight Ray Leonard (nicknamed Sugar Ray Leonard). We travelled to the Olympics from 1984-1992 on official trips, skipped 1980 Moscow due to the boycott.”
Captain Adajania, a Padmashree awardee for contribution to Indian sport, served on the AIBA in various apex roles and died in 1994. The former was in 2000 Sydney alone as a sports fan, saw Gurcharan Singh narrowly miss a light heavyweight bronze, following an adverse verdict in the quarterfinal tie-break. Eight years later, boosted by Bindra on target, Vijender opened India’s medal account in the ring at Beijing, competed in Rio before joining the pro ranks.