By defeating the reigning Olympic champion to win gold at the Asian Games, Amit Panghal set off well-earned euphoria and established himself as a contender for Tokyo 2020. But International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) plans of scrapping men’s categories from the Tokyo programme could see the boxer fight out of his division, and his element.
“The main problem is that almost 95 per cent, they will remove the 49kg category from Olympics,” India men’s high performance director Santiago Nieva said on Tuesday. “In that case, men’s categories will start from 52kg, maybe 51. Otherwise, there’s no denying that Amit could be talked about as being among the top 2-3 candidates for the Olympic gold medal.”
In a step towards promoting gender parity, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last year ruled that the women’s categories would go up from three to five. The addition of two categories means removing two from men’s, taking the competition down to eight events instead of the current 10. International Boxing Association (AIBA) officials rallied against the move in January, asking the IOC to reduce the number of men in each weight category instead. The IOC, however, has insisted that the decision is final.
“It will be a huge blow for Indian boxing because 49kg is essentially our best weight,” says Nieva. “Apart from Amit, we have (Nutlai) Lalbiakkima, who also defeated Dusmatov earlier this year. Shyam Kumar Kakara is winning medals in international meets, and Himanshu Sharma is reaching the final in every tournament. The division has a lot of talent.”
Interestingly, the addition of women’s categories can spell good news for India. While the IOC has hinted that 57 and 69kg categories will be added to the existing 51, 60 and 75, Boxing Federation of India (BFI) officials are hopeful that one of the new divisions will be replaced by 48kg, the preferred weight of five-time world champion Mary Kom.
“They realise the importance of Mary Kom putting on a show at the Olympics, and we are hopeful that we will convince them to add the 48kg division,” said an official.
Despite an Olympic bronze and a bronze and gold at the Asian Games in the 51kg category, Mary, 35, has spoken of the struggles of putting on the extra kilos. Since returning to her natural weight last year, Mary won the gold at Asian Championships and Commonwealth Games. Nieva believes moving up to 52kg will be tough for the 5’3″ Panghal.
“Boxing in another weight is always difficult for boxers,” says Nieva. “Amit has the skills, level and now the experience to cope with that. But moving up means he will be facing bigger, stronger opponents. Both height wise and size wise. I think he is good enough to adjust. But even in India, the competition will be tremendous. We have talented boxers in 52kg as well, so that would be tough competition for Amit. One thing’s for sure though. The best one from that lot will surely be good enough to compete at the Olympics.”
However, it is not just weight divisions which are in jeopardy. Though it is one of the original Olympic sports, boxing remains reeling on the ropes, with its presence in Tokyo still uncertain. Over the last year, the IOC has reiterated “significant ongoing concern” over the sport’s governing body AIBA, notably in the areas of “governance, ethical and financial management”, and has threatened scrapping the sport altogether.
“For us, it is difficult to even imagine Olympics without boxing,” says Nieva. “It has been a stepping stone and has such a rich history of starts who transcended boxing and became global stars, like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar de la Hoya. But today is a different panorama. IOC are not boxing people and new sports are knocking on the door. We also have to realise that amateur boxing is not bringing a lot of money. Then, AIBA has had many scandals. Boxing’s exclusion is very realistic. The chances are 60-40, if not 50-50.”