Disappointing and agonising. These two words sum up India's campaign at Rio Olympics 2016 so far. Over the years, scarce yet significant moments of glory have papered over multiple setbacks the country have suffered at the Olympic Games. With India still awaiting that elusive moment in 2016, the fall of one medal prospect after another has dampened the mood of the Indians who are beginning to wonder whether if there is any joy in store for them at Rio.
It's still early days though, and despite the big guns like Leander Paes, Heena Sidhu, Gagan Narang and Abhinav Bindra biting the dust in their respective events, India still have over 75 percent of their contingent still waiting to make their bow.
In recent times – especially at the last two Olympic Games – Indians have looked at the sport of boxing with special interest as it has yielded two bronze medals for the country: Vijender Singh in 2008 Beijing Olympics and MC Mary Kom in London in 2012. But neither of the two iconic figures of Indian boxing have qualified for the Rio Olympics. While it wasn't so surprising in Vijender's case, as he decided to turn professional, Mary Kom's failure to make it was a bit of a blow as it meant India won't have any women boxers at the 2016 Olympics.
Shiva Thapa (56kg), Manoj Kumar (64kg) and Vikas Krishan (75kg) will be the Indian flag bearers in the sport at Rio. The International Boxing Association's (AIBA) decision to terminate India's national federation has meant that there have been no senior Nationals for the last four years and the pugilists have been starved of foreign exposure. So a figure as low as three Indian boxers at the Games doesn't come as a huge surprise.
All the above mentioned boxers were a part of India's contingent for the 2012 London Olympic Games, but neither managed to create any waves four years ago and returned empty handed. So it's evident why the nation isn't expecting a lot from the boxers in 2016, considering the dire straits Indian boxing is in at the moment.
Moreover, a difficult draw that sees Shiva Thapa and Manoj Kumar battle the London gold and bronze medallist respectively has only added to the gloom surrounding the sport.
But, battling the hopelessness of the situation, the Indian boxers managed to maintain the inflow of medals. Vikas Krishan won a silver medal in the 75kg weight category at the Asian Championships in 2015, while Shiva Thapa was the Asian Champion in 2012 and 2013 in the Bantamweight category.
So does this give India some hope in Rio? Can they rise against the odds and help India bag an Olympic medal? The reasons to believe so are few and finite, but words from the Indian boxers' physiotherapist, Ayush Yekhande, makes a case for some optimism.
"Vikas has an in-born boxing talent. He also has enough experienced having participated in the 2012 Olympics," Ayush told Firstpost when asked what sets Vikas apart from the rest of the boxers.
Vikas ,who trained in the US ahead of the Rio Olympics, has all kinds of technical punches under his sleeve, revealed Yekhande and felt he is extremely smart at using them in combinations. "If you see Vikas during a bout, you will realise that he is a thinking boxer. He is extremely clever. He generates a lot of power in his punches and always has plenty of options in terms of moves," the physio said.
Vikas is ranked sixth in his category and will be up against 18-year-old American Charles Conwell in his opening bout. The wily boxer from Bhiwani should be able to bring his experience to play and see off the American challenge in the opening bout.
Vikas had lost in the pre-quarter final bout against an American boxer following a controversial decision at the London Games and stayed away from boxing for one and half years. He came back to the ring with a vengeance and an aim to win a medal.
Most importantly, the 24-year-old boxer seems to have overcome most of his weaknesses since making a return. "Earlier in the year, Vikas' coach and me observed that he used to get tired in the last round of his and that was also evident during training. His legs lacked the strength to last the entire bout and his movement was highly restricted in the third round where he only used to rely on power and accuracy," Ayush told Firstpost.
"So we worked hard on increasing the strength in his legs. Vikas responded greatly. He showed immense dedication and commitment and followed what was told to him. He is now able to maintain the high intensity throughout the fight and that's making a huge difference," he added.
The results have backed Vikas' new found endurance as he won a bronze medal at the AIBA World Olympic qualifying event to book his place at Rio. The boxer who is hailed as 'Vijender's heir' is now hell bent on winning an Olympic medal for his country, like Vijender did eight years ago.
Manoj Kumar, India's representative in the 64kg category faces a daunting task of beating the London 2012 bronze medalist Petrauskas Evaldas to get past the first round. But Yekhande feels the challenge would hardly faze the 29-year-old.
"Because of his age, Manoj isn't the quickest in the ring and he knows it. But what he has is tons of experience and the way he uses his experience sets him apart from the others," Yekhande said in an interview with Firstpost.
Even at the World Qualifying event, he had a tough game which he needed to win to qualify, but Manoj did an extensive study on his opponent to carve a strategy for him and went onto win the bout 3-0. "Manoj is extremely good at studying his opponents. He will see what kind of punches the opponent makes, how does he move, and will make his plan accordingly. He is very good at it and more often than not, he gets it right," Yekhande added.
Manoj will be up against 24-year-old Petrauskas Evaldas of Lithuania and his lack of experience could come up wanting against the veteran Manoj. Although Manoj is ranked 18 places below his opponent in the AIBA rankings for the 64kg weight category, Manoj's ability to play to his strengths could prove to be the deciding factor not just in the first round but even beyond if Manoj advances, giving him an outside chance of a medal.
Lastly, Shiva Thapa who many believe is India's best bet for a medal in boxing, has the toughest draw. He faces sixth seed Robeisy Ramírez of Cuba in the flyweight category. However, Shiva has been the man in form and is the current world number three in his category. The Cuban had previously got the better of Shiva in the 2010 Youth Olympics final, but Shiva has grown from strength to strength since then and goes into Rio in red hot form.
"Shiva is in very good form at the moment. If you see his training, it has reached a very high level. His punches, his agility has improved remarkably over the last year and it could be fair to say that he is a medal contender as he is among the best in his category," Yekhande said.
The physio also hailed Shiva's dedication which according to him has got him to the third rank in his category. "Shiva's dedication is second to none. He is very particular about his training, exercise and every aspect related to his game, That's the reason why he has improved so much." he added.
The initial hurdles appear to be major ones for the Indian boxers, but the recent past suggests the they have plenty in their locker to stand up to the very best in the game. The road beyond won't be easier but the boxers would be banking on the momentum they can receive from if they gain first round success. The picture seems to be gloomy for India at the Rio Olympics right now, but don't be surprised if boxing brightens up the campaign as it has done over the last eight years.
In the past, India's rare successes have come the hard way. In that light, the turmoil-plagued Indian boxing seems to have the ideal platform to script a typical Indian Olympic fairytale.
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Updated Date: Aug 09, 2016 16:59:24 IST