A sense of chaos descended on the Indian boxers competing in the India Open in Guwahati after the International Olympic Committee announced that the Amateur International Boxing Association will be stripped of the rights to host Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
For many months leading up to Thursday, there was widespread speculation that the sport will be scrapped from the Games. The IOC was unhappy with the “ongoing legal, reputational and financial risks” of AIBA following a six-month investigation.
Relations between AIBA and the IOC took a sharp downward turn following the 2016 Rio Games, when 36 officials and referees were suspended amid allegations of bout fixing.
In March, Uzbek businessman Gafur Rakhimov stepped down as president after reports emerged of him having criminal links.
The Indian contingent’s plan for Tokyo was already underway with boxers making adjustments with their respective weight categories. Asian champion Amit Panghal and six-time world champion Mary Kom had moved up to the 51kg category to put themselves in contention for the Games.
The upcoming World Championships in Russia was marked as one of the qualifying events for Tokyo. The World Series of Boxing was also another gateway for the boxers. But now the IOC has announced that it will prepare a new calendar for Olympic qualifiers between January and May next year and they could even have a re-look at the weight categories.
This has forced the likes of Panghal, who was making steady progress in the 51kg category to alter his plans. The 23-year-old had even bagged gold in the Asian Championships.
“The world championships not being a qualifying event is the main shock,” India coach Santiago Nieva said. “The question is how many qualifiers can be held within this short period [between January and May]. Lets see, we’ll get to know about that in June.”
The Boxing Federation of India, too, played down any fears. “It’s good in a way that the issue is resolved,” a BFI official said. “As for the weight categories, we are still awaiting clarity from the IOC and will take the next course of action post that.”
It is unlikely that there will be any changes in the weight categories. The men will compete in eight of them and the women in five. Coach Nieva said that quotas for women might increase closer to the qualifiers.
Dealing with a ‘shock’
Shiva Thapa, who entered the 60kg category final of the India Open in his hometown on Thursday, admitted that there were fears that played on his mind after IOC’s announcement. Thapa is scheduled to move to the 63kg category from 60kg to boost his chances.
“I was surprised and in shock when I heard the news. But this doesn’t change anything,” said the 25-year-old is looking to qualify for his third Olympic event, having competed in 2012 and 2016. “There should be 10 weight categories at least. I am not going to change anything right now. Qualification to the Olympics is my priority.”
Meanwhile, there was a tinge of disappointment in Panghal’s tone. “It will be tough. We did well in the Asian Championships and had the momentum. In my opinion, we could have gone on to fetch four-five quotas at least (at the World Championship),” he said.
Despite being crowned the Asian Champion, it’s early days for Panghal in the 51kg category. He now sees the world championships as an opportunity to assess his opponents.
“They have taken away the quota now. But it’s alright,” he said. “We will more chance to learn about our rivals from all over the world and prepare ourselves.
“This category is new for me and I have just had couple of competitions. So I will get more time to know about my rivals. We can study videos and find out their weaknesses. I believe it will be easier for us after gaining that experience
“The World Championships will still be of prime importance. If we manage to beat some of the top boxers, that should give us immense confidence ahead of qualifiers. All the coaches and boxers sat at night and having a discussion about the same.”
As for India, it is a sad case of history repeating itself. Before the start of the Rio Olympics four years ago, it was the Indian federation that was in turmoil, severely affecting the chances of a host of players. For the moment, the boxers can breathe easy in the knowledge that the sport still holds its place in the Games, despite the standoff between IOC and AIBA.