India’s High Performance Director Bernard Dunne on Saturday confirmed that star boxers Nikhat Zareen and Lovina Borgohain have already secured automatic qualification for the upcoming Asian Games 2023, which are also the first Olympic Qualifiers for the Paris Olympics 2024.

In a press conference ahead of the finals at the IBA Women’s Boxing World Championships on Saturday, the Irishman clarified that Nitu Ghanghas, now the 48kg world champion, and Saweety Boora, the 81kg world champion will be on standby, that too if they decide to switch to an Olympic weight class. Presently, the Olympic weight classes in five weight divisions at the Asian Games stand at: 51kg, 57kg, 60kg, 69kg, and 75kg.

In addition to speaking about his plans for the Indian boxers and his experience so far, he also confirmed that the new evaluation criteria devised by the Boxing Federation of India is here to stay and that selection trials are a thing of the past.

Here’s a look at excerpts from the press conference:

What has been your experience working with this group of talented Indian boxers, and especially when you joined? What was your first impression of Indian boxing and over the period over this time? What changes that you have brought to the team?

I suppose the biggest thing that we’ve been looking at is just the structure on training. Athletes getting a better understanding of who they are, what their strengths are. We’re not just attack attack attack. As you can see, the way our athletes have performed. India has never lacked heart. It doesn’t lack hardwork. And I suppose what we’re trying to bring is that little bit more understanding of the little changes within the programme, in terms of reducing the load, making sure athletes target with the competition. I think if you were to speak with the athletes, they would clearly say that they feel a lot fresher.

You’ve brought a different system of selection for this tournament. Indian boxers are more used to the selection trials. How do you think the group at the national camp take this process?

A big part for us throughout all our process was giving clarity to the athletes. So speaking to them on a regular basis (was a priority). Trials is the old system that was in place. But that’s only one moment. It’s three three-minute rounds where judges and referees sit down and select our winner. Whereas with the system that we’ve brought in, in terms of assessment, you have the coaches and myself who work with the athletes day in day out. And it’s not one moment. It’s based over a period of time. So God forbid an athlete got sick the day before a trial. What do you do?

In the assessment, though, it’s not one week, it’s not one day, it’s over a number of weeks, and allows those who best know the athletes and actually can see the data about who’s performing and who’s not performing. And who at this moment in time is the best selection, but doesn’t mean that they’re always going to be the best selection. They’ve got to come back in and prove themselves. We’ve got to make sure that they continue to raise the level and what we see within the system is that actually our level of performance keeps going up and up and up. Nobody rests because they get on number one I’m an automatic pick... actually no, you’re getting challenged.

When you get an increase in performance right across the system is when we know that’s what we’re looking for. And the second thing is that it actually normalises the pressure, and normalises the anxiety that comes with competition. Because all of a sudden, within our own high performance system, they’re constantly being watched, they know they’re being evaluated, being assessed. So they’re constantly pushing the concept, challenging themselves and being under that pressure and that expectation. And then competition now becomes an everyday part of life.

What’s the word on the athletes that are participating in the non-Olympic weight division?

Well, they will have that opportunity after the World Championships. So I’ve already expressed this to all the athletes. Again, biggest part for me is making sure that I communicate correctly with my team, and that they understand what we want from them and how we believe that they can progress and move forward.

Somebody will change weight, somebody may not want to change it and that’s also perfectly fine. So we want to empower our athletes. I want my athletes to own their careers. That’s really important for me but I also want them to be accountable at the end for what they actually do in the gym. And that’s why assessment really becomes pivotal because you’re holding them accountable to these parameters that we set if you haven’t improved, you haven’t changed or if you regress.

With the selection process we have now, what about weight categories where there is a problem of plenty? For instance, the 50kg weight category is a bit crowded with Nikhat, Nitu, Sakshi, Manju Rani competing....

That’s a great challenge to have. And that’s the tough decisions I’ve got to make. We could have a whole different story here where we’ve only got one athlete in the weight division and you know, where selection becomes easy. But when we’ve got multiple athletes, that’s the problem and to me, that’s a good problem to have.

Are you saying that irrespective of who wins a gold medal here, they need to go back and go through the assessment process again?

Those who win gold and silver here... if you look at the policy online, those are selections for the Asian Games in the Olympic weights. But anything can happen between now and the Asian Games, somebody can, God forbid, break their hand, somebody could break a leg... God knows. So when they get really sick, our number two and number three need to be ready in those weight divisions. So it’s really important for me that all our athletes realise that, if you’re called upon, you need to be ready. So it’s like, if I was a professional athlete and I get a phone call at a moment’s notice where you get to keep a chance to fight for a world title. But I say ‘Sorry, I’m not training, I’m not in shape.’ God knows what can happen between now and then, everything can change. So we need to make sure that everybody is focused on being as ready as they possibly can be.

Selection addendum for Asian Games:

  • The athletes who win Gold/Silver at the World Championship 2023 will have an automatic selection for the Asian games 2023 (first Olympic qualifier) in that particular weight category.
  • Trials will be held for all Olympic weight categories for athletes other than those who participated in Olympic weight at World Championship 2023. An athlete at this stage will be allowed to move his/her weight up/down if they so wish, to participate. 
  • An athlete to be eligible for trials must be a camper of National Coaching Camp, have Medalled at any one of the following Championships/Games: Elite National Championships 2021/22. Elite Asian Championship 2021/22. Commonwealth Games 2022. Elite World Championship 2021/22.
  • Trials would be conducted for Elite Women in first/second week of May 2023 and for Elite Men in First/Second week of June 2023. Both boxers, who play the final of the selection trials will be selected to join the National Coaching Camp along with the 3rd Boxer, who is an Elite World Championship 2023 participant. 
  • Ranking Evaluation will be conducted for all athletes other than World Gold/Silver from 19th June to 1st July 2023. 
  • Any such requirements will be published in writing with sufficient notice to athletes.
— via BFI

Also Read:

IBA Women’s World Boxing C’ships: From Nitu to Lovlina, how Delhi embraced India’s champions

Boxing: Nikhat Zareen aces her toughest test yet to be crowned World Champion for the second time

Boxing: Nitu Ghanghas, once awe-struck, struts on her way to being crowned world champion