Having spectator support at a major sporting event is something athletes dream about. There are not many better feelings for a sportsperson than hearing fans chant one’s name at an event, and one as big as a World Championships. All the hours spent in solitude while training, seem worthwhile. A classic example was on display at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships this weekend where Indian athletes won four gold medals.
Out of India’s twelve-member contingent, four pugilists were assured of medals after their quarterfinal wins. All four of them went one step further to reach the finals over the weekend. And there was more celebrations in store as all four medallists finished atop the podium. This is only the second time in history that India have won four gold medals at the Women’s World Boxing Championships. The other occasion being in 2006 when Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny Lalremliani and Lekha K.C had won gold for the country.
The build-up to the event saw World Champions Nikhat Zareen, Saweety Boora, Nitu Ghanghas and Lovlina Borgohain all admit that their motivation was fuelled also by the fact that they wanted to bring a gold medal in front of the home crowd.
Indeed, crowd support plays a crucial role in sport. The boxers displayed that their individual skill, talent and training matter but it can be enhanced by the support and encouragement that athletes receive from their fans at a home event.
That there was a promising, young Indian in red-hot-form in the opening bout of the finals ensured that the weekend was off to a good start. Nitu, taking on Mongolia’s Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg, had a roaring KD Jadhav arena behind her. There was also a small community formed between the coaching staff and boxers in the Mongolian contingent, that occupied the front row seats to challenge the Indian decibels off the ring. Small in number, but powerful in spirit, they gave a good fight.
“I felt that since the tournament is happening in India this year with the home support constantly backing us, I won’t let the medal slip away this time,” Nitu had said before the bout.
When Nitu defeated Altantsetseg, the Indian crowd came alive once again and out came the drums and the Indian flags. Overwhelmed by the scenes, a teary-eyed Nitu was lifted by an emotional coach Bhaskar Bhatt.
“We’ve come here for all the Indian boxers but we are specifically looking forward to watching Nikhat,” said a fifteen-year-old budding boxer Gaurvi from the Madhya Pradesh Sports Academy.
Seated alongside other aspiring boxers, Tanishka and Muskan, they said, “Home support is very vital because playing a big event at home is a fresh feeling.”
A while later, when China’s Wu Yu and Yang Chengyu were in action in their respective finals, a certain voice clothed in a blue jersey was screaming instructions from the stands. Energetic and consistent, she had the passion that fans do but that certain someone was the former champion Wang Lina, who took the ring against India’s Saweety Boora in the 81kg final later in the evening.
Day one of the finals were loud. But if the crowd on the first day were enthusiastic and pumped, day two saw them charged and further driven to push the other two Indians standing.
Two superstars were going to be in action, afterall. Nikhat Zareen defending her crown at home? Lovlina Borgohain vying for her first major title since the Tokyo Olympics bronze? Delicious.
If at any point, the energy of the crowd dropped, trust an announcer like Rishi Panicker to hype them up with his contagious energy. The term ‘knowledgeable crowd’ makes an appearance in cricket very often. But, at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, this boxing crowd was knowledgeable too. Largely because it comprised budding boxers, students from several academies and volunteers from the Sports Authority of India. The others, were open to learning, looking up the rules and which punches were likely to get more scores and figuring out the ever-ambiguous scoring system.
Nikhat’s dominant performance in the first round saw the decibels rise even further. On several occasions that saw the Indian fall because of constant clinching, the Indians shouted, ‘Uth Nikhat’ (Get up). Even when her Vietnamese opponent Nguyen Thi Tham bounced back in the second round to make it a closer contest, the crowd got behind Nikhat to ensure she was ready to get back to her best in the final round.
Meanwhile, the bright, free-spirited Brazilians sang tunes and cheered on when Ferreira Beatriz Iasmim was crowned champion of the 60kg weight division against an equally vocal Colombian contingent who were backing Valdez Pana Angie Paola.
Because of the break between bouts, the energy dipped a little but as soon as Panicker returned to announce Lovlina’s arrival, the energy was back. The fight was more hard-fought and she was up against an Olympian and two-time Commonwealth Games champion. The bout was going down the wire and when it was reviewed, the nerves were obvious in the crowd. But as the Indian’s hand was raised, the crowd got the show they were waiting for.
On what would have been an ordinary weekend otherwise in their lives, India’s performance ensured an extraordinary exhibition that the spectators in Delhi lapped up. While the crowd went back home with memories of their stars on the podium, the boxers would go home with medals and memories of their names reverberating in a packed stadium.