She may have been crowned the world champion in 2006 and followed it up with several medals at other international events. But for sports enthusiasts in the country, the most abiding memory of Sarita Devi is of the inconsolable boxer on the podium at the Incheon Asian Games, refusing to accept her bronze medal.
A day prior, Sarita looked on course to march into the finals dominating her bout against South Korea’s Park Ji Na, but shockingly, the judges ruled in favour of the local boxer. Sarita’s gold medal hopes came crashing down. In unprecedented scenes played out during the victory ceremony, the emotionally-charged Indian refused to let the officials put the bronze medal around her neck. A few minutes later, Sarita walked towards Park Ji Na and hung her bronze medal around the Korean’s neck.
“People tend to remind me of these images but trust me, I have blocked them away. I do not want to cloud my memory with negative thoughts. I have truly moved on,’’ says Sarita Devi in an exclusive interview with Firstpost as she prepares for the forthcoming World Championships in Russia.
“I am the quintessential fighter. Be it motherhood, my age, injuries, the ban – I have fought everything. These two years are the most crucial years of my boxing career,’’ adds the 37-year-old who was slapped a one year ban for her protest against the judges at the 2014 Asian Games.
After the World Championship, Sarita will be preparing for the Asia/Oceania Olympic qualifiers to be held in China in January 2020 hoping to book a ticket for Tokyo in the 60 kg category. “I narrowly missed making the cut for the Olympics in the last two editions and this is a big motivation. I have an unfinished agenda before I hang my gloves.”
There is no sign of her slowing down. Earlier this year, she won a bronze medal at the Asian Championships and looked to be in good form in the World Championship trials beating President Cup winner Simranjeet Kaur. Six-time world champion and 2012 Olympic medallist Mary Kom skipped the trials and has been advocating a direct entry for top boxers in big international tournaments. But Sarita does not agree. “I am all for trials. It is a good preparation for the boxers to find out where they stand. Moreover, it is a great opportunity for the young boxers to challenge the more experienced ones.”
In the World Championship, Sarita is expected to face tough opposition from boxers from China and Chinese Taipei.
The 2002 Commonwealth Games winner Qamar Ali is one of the coaches in charge of the Indian women boxers. “I still marvel at her killing instinct. She may not be the most technically sound boxer going around. But she more than makes up for it with her temperament. The never-say-die attitude in the ring sets her apart.’’
Sarita believes that this indomitable spirit is a legacy of her difficult growing up years in strife-torn Manipur. One of the eight siblings, Sarita lost her father when she was just 13. Sports – be it taekwondo, karate or boxing – provided an outlet from the depressing setting. “I grew up with barbs pointed at me and my mother by our neighbours. Your daughter may be playing a sport. But remember she will always have to come back to kitchen and look after the household. I think these scornful remarks made me more determined to become a professional sportswoman and shatter the stereotypes.’’
Over the years, both Mary Kom and Sarita Devi have become the faces of Indian women boxing. “Mary Kom and myself have often been fierce rivals competing in same weight categories. But I think she is a big motivating factor. The way she made a comeback after birth of her twins and then went on to win the Olympic medal has been a big inspiration for me,’’ points out Sarita.
Sarita’s return to the boxing ring barely a year after the birth of her son, or popping pain killers before bouts to postpone a surgery to her wrist before the Asian Games and making a comeback after a one year ban are testament to her resilience. In her native state of Manipur, she is a role model, inspiring other youngsters to take to the sport of boxing. She runs a boxing academy in Mayang, around 25 kilometres from Imphal where around 80 young boys and girls are trained to don the boxing gloves.
Thoiba Singh, Sarita’s husband has known her since her world championship title triumph in 2006. “I think the biggest transformation in Sarita in the last few years is that she has become very spiritual. And this is reflected during her bouts where she is more cool headed and hardly gets flustered when the chips are down," he said.
Thoiba was present at the Seonhak Gymnasium in Incheon when Sarita had broken down. “Even I want to erase those harrowing moments. In every tournament since the 2014 Asian Games, Sarita and me keep an eye for the Korean boxer – Park Ji Na. She bore the brunt of our anger for no fault of hers. We both want to apologise to her but unfortunately we have not been able to meet her.’’
Sarita and Thoiba may have pushed aside the painful memories but for the Indian fans to forget it, Sarita will need to probably come up with a grand performance at the Olympics to relegate the images of the 2014 Asian Games to the background.
Updated Date: Aug 26, 2019 15:22:00 IST