The Olympics stage hasn’t been kind to Indian athletes earmarked as favourites to win a medal, especially in the recent past. Ask Jitu Rai, ask Saina Nehwal, ask Deepika Kumari and even Abhinav Bindra.
The very best in Indian sport have struggled to meet expectations at the Olympics. For Amit Panghal, the World no 1 boxer in the flyweight category, a medal is considered a minimum requirement.
Now consider the fact that he is also making his Olympics debut.
One need not look too far to find examples of athletes struggling on their debuts. Mirabai Chanu, a silver medallist in Tokyo couldn’t even finish her weightlifting event in Rio five years back. Saurabh Chaudhary, an all-conquering shooter who topped the qualification only finished seventh in the final on Saturday.
So for Amit Panghal, there is a lot more to fight in Tokyo than just the man in front of him in the ring. Early nerves, huge expectations and an opponent that is slightly extra motivated to prove himself against a top boxer.
The Rohtak boxer though isn’t losing sleep over it.
“My ranking (World No 1) tells me that that I’m on the right track. What I’m doing in training and in the ring is working out. So, it gives me immense confidence ahead of the Olympics,” Panghal told Scroll.in.
“There is always some amount of pressure due to the expectations but I’m confident because irrespective of my world ranking, my work ethic and effort in training remains the same,” he added.
Even as boxers, like other athletes, were confined to their homes during the lockdown last year, Panghal was in touch with his coaches trying to iron out his flaws.
“The key to success at the Olympics is preparation. It is the single most important thing. And in terms of that, we have left no stone unturned with Amit. We have worked on all his weaknesses over the last year and he has shown considerable improvement on all those parameters,” national boxing coach CA Kutappa told Scroll.in.
Panghal is a man with few chinks in his armour but to feel assured and in control amid so many pressures at the Olympics, he needs to eliminate or at least minimise all possible areas of weakness.
“Ever since I switched from 49 kg to 52 kg in 2019, I have worked a lot on my power, strength and reach and I have improved a lot in that aspect,” Panghal said.
After switching weight categories, the boxer from Rohtak started to feel a bit disadvantaged by his lack of strength especially against taller boxers in the new weight category. While his agility was an asset, he needed to add strength to his punches.
“Amit is very strong in long-range boxing. That’s where he can find a lot of joy with his punches. So our advice to him was to try and play in long-range as much as possible,” Kutappa said.
“But for a boxer of his height, he needed to improve in close-range boxing as well especially at Olympic level where margins are fine. Lack of strength in the punches was a problem for him so we asked him to keep movement high when in close range. Now that he has added more strength, he has ticked all boxes,” added the coach.
The Indian boxer trained in Italy over the last few weeks where he put his newfound skills into practice and tested himself against sparring partners.
“I’ve focussed on starting the first round aggressively. It’s something that has caused me problems in the past but I feel I have come a long way as compared to 2019. Training with other Olympic boxers has helped me know exactly where I stand and that has given me belief,” Panghal said.
“Apart from that, there has been a focus on the usual technical and tactical aspects of the game and I’ve tried to move with a bit more speed as well” he added
There is palpable excitement surrounding Amit Panghal and his medal prospects thanks to his performances over the last four years. And the boxer is determined to ride this wave of optimism rather than get crushed under it.
“At an event like Olympic, there are no easy bouts as everyone comes in their best form and gives their everything. I’ve studyied and prepared for all of them as anyone is capable of beating anyone on a given day. I’m leaving nothing to chance,” he said.
Amit Panghal appears primed to put his best foot forward at the Games and when that happens, he rarely goes empty-handed. In Tokyo, the prize could be an Olympic medal.