Indian boxing found itself embroiled in another controversy after Nikhat Zareen cried foul at the Boxing Federation of India bending its criteria and deciding to send six-time world champion Mary Kom for the Olympic qualifiers.
Zareen, who was overlooked for the recently concluded world championships, wrote to the sports ministry to give her a fair chance in a trial bout.
Are BFI trying to bury a promising young boxer’s career? There is little doubt that nobody in Indian boxing history has achieved more than Mary Kom. But, is her selection justified? As an aging great, how good is she against the younger crop?
Here are the key questions answered regarding an issue that has turned out into an unsavoury saga:
Is there a history between Zareen and Mary Kom?
The starting point to the controversy, perhaps, is the India Open in Guwahati in April. Zareen and Mary Kom faced off in the semi-finals of that event and in what was a close battle between the duo, the senior boxer emerged victorious 4:1 in a split-decision verdict to move to the final. Mary Kom, around this time, had switched to the 51kg category to prepare for the Olympics and was battling it out against rising stars such as Zareen and Jyoti Gulia, another youth World Champion.
What followed after the bout came as a bit of a surprise. Mary Kom, who has seldom spoken about opponents or teammates in her chequered career, lashed out at her younger teammate.
“It has come out in the newspapers that she is going to be challenging me,” the multiple World Champion told reporters at the time. “It is better to say that in a good way. They [the younger boxers] are so lucky to be fighting with me. They will get a lot of experience that way. I have been competing for the country for a long time. How many times have I proved myself?”
Mary’s outburst was unwarranted. There was little evidence to suggest that Zareen had disrespected the veteran. But that was only the starting point of the Hyderabadi’s ordeal. After debilitating injuries over the past two years, Zareen was just beginning to find her feet with a couple of medals in exposure trips earlier in the year.
What happened in the leadup to the World Championships?
To Zareen’s dismay, Mary Kom was named as an automatic selection ahead of her in the 51kg category. There were no trials and the 23-year-old had every reason to feel that the decision was unfair on her. Zareen had done enough to warrant a trial at the very least and there was an overarching feeling that the Boxing Federation of India were going on reputation over form.
Truth be told, Mary Kom had a solid case to present too. She had beaten Zareen when the two faced off and over the past year, had gold medals from the World Championships in India (where she made history) and the India Open. The London Olympics bronze medallist would go on to collect an unprecedented eighth medal from the Championships despite bowing out of the semi-finals.
What was BFI’s explanation to Zareen?
Zareen alleged that she was “stopped from competing” in a scheduled trial bout against Vanlal Duati by chairman of selectors Rajesh Bhandari.
Zareen was told that she was being protected from getting exposed early in her career.
She had said, “There are some internal discussions happening to ensure I’m protected for the future and avoid getting exposed at a young age.
“I’m really surprised by this action as I have already participated in the World Championships in 2016 and if I was fine then, so in 2019, I surely cannot be young and this cannot be the reason.”
Zareen is 23 and has competed in major events in the past. This is by no means a comparison, but at the same age, Mary Kom had three gold medals and a silver from the World Championships. If Zareen is to be believed, the federation’s explanation defied logic.
BFI did announce a trial from August 6 to 8 and Zareen was expected to box Mary Kom on the final day. But on August 6, the BFI informed Zareen that her bout against her decorated colleague is postponed to August 7. When the two boxers were preparing for their bouts, a new notice from BFI said that the trial in 51kg was cancelled.
Does BFI’s clarification hold water?
Along with Mary Kom, another boxer, Lovilina Borgohain also entered the World Championships squad without any trials.
“We got a representation from Mary Kom’s coach [Chhotelal Yadav] and after considering it, we felt that Mary Kom had done enough to merit selection without trials. The BFI has been consulted on this matter,” chairman of selectors Rajesh Bhandari had said.
“She beat Nikhat in the India Open [semi-finals] and is consistently better than others in the national camp as well.”
BFI cancelled the selection trials in 51kg and 69kg categories and selected Mary Kom and Lovilina Borgohain in the two categories respectively. It denied other boxers a chance to even challenge the two boxers, who went on to win bronze medals at the Worlds in Ulan-Ude.
Why is Mary Kom’s selection for the Olympic qualifiers contentious?
Mary Kom bagged her eighth world medal in Russia, an unprecedented feat in world boxing. Unlike wrestling, the world event, however, is not considered for Olympic qualifying in boxing. There is a separate tournament for that in China next year.
And now, the BFI plans to send Mary Kom for the Olympic qualifiers on the back of her bronze-winning show at the World Championships. The contentious part is that the federation moved away from the previous decision to give direct selection only to the gold and silver winners. There is little doubt that Mary Kom, if competing, will be one of the leading contenders for her second Olympic medal. What’s puzzling is the decision to do away with the metrics set for the rest of the contingent.
What was Zareen’s letter to the sports ministry about?
Zareen wrote to Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, demanding a trial bout against Mary Kom before India’s squad for next year’s Olympic qualifiers is decided. “I look for no favours, just fairplay. And whether Mary Kom or any other boxer qualifies after the trial, we can at least sleep at night knowing that every one of the candidate for the best possible opportunity to make India proud at Olympics,” she said.
What was Rijiju’s response?
Rijiju responded saying he can only ask the BFI to decide what is best for India and the athletes. “I’ll surely convey to Boxing Federation to take the best decision keeping in mind the best interest of the NATION, SPORTS & ATHLETES. Although, Minister should not be involved in the selection of the players by the Sports Federations which are autonomous as per OLYMPIC CHARTER,” Rijiju tweeted in response to Zareen’s letter. Mary Kom has maintained that she would go by the decision taken by the BFI.
Zareen’s fight is slowly gathering steam with India’s only individual Olympic gold-medallist and shooter Abhinav Bindra lending his support. But, for the moment, there is little that suggests that the BFI would go back on its decision. The federation has done a lot of things right in Indian boxing after picking up the pieces in 2017. Challenging Mary Kom’s status quo seems to be a step too far, however.
Update: Mary Kom is not pleased
And Mary Kom is not one to shy away from a fight is she? On Saturday, the senior boxer said that she would be up for the trial with Zareen.
“The decision has been taken by BFI. I can’t change the rule. I can just perform. Whatever they decide, I will go with that. I’m not scared to face her, I am fine with the trials,” said Mary Kom. “I have defeated her many times since SAF Games but she keeps challenging me. I mean, what is the point? It is just a formality. BFI also knows who can win a medal at Olympics.”
To go with that, the Olympic medallist also took a shot at Abhinav Bindra for backing Zareen’s plea to the sports ministry.
“Bindra is an Olympic gold medallist but I too have multiple golds at World Championships. This is not his business, to involve in boxing, to interfere. I don’t talk about shooting, so it is better for him to stay quiet on boxing. He doesn’t know the exact rules of boxing,” Mary Kom said.