In a dramatic turn of events during the presentation ceremony at the Seonhak Gymnasium on Wednesday, Indian boxer L. Sarita Devi refused her lightweight bronze medal and hung it around the neck of the South Korean she lost to in the 57-60 kg semifinals on Tuesday.
If her husband had scuffled with security personnel and launched an expletive-laden tirade at the match officials after Sarita’s controversial defeat to Park Ji-Na on Tuesday, the boxer tried to maintain a calm exterior as she walked to the podium with her arms folded and head down.
Before long, however, she burst into tears. As she was presented with the bronze, she held up her hands and said she would not accept it. The official twice tried to put it round her neck but she would not change her mind. The 29-year-old from Manipur finally held the medal in her hands but continued weeping.
After the other medals had been awarded, Sarita stepped off the podium and went to shake hands with silver-medallist Park. As Park gave a traditional Korean bow, Sarita put the bronze round the bemused fighter’s neck. She then waved at the crowd and took her position on the podium.
Park, visibly embarrassed, then walked up to Sarita and tried to coax her into accepting the medal but Sarita smiled and gave her another hug. Not knowing what to do, the Korean boxer left the medal on the podium as all the boxers vacated the ring. “I was very embarrassed. I pleaded with her to take the medal. I understand her position but I was surprised and didn’t know what to do. So I kept her medal on the podium,” Park later said.
Sarita had contemplated the move on Tuesday with her husband, although she insisted her actions were all spontaneous and unplanned. “I told her, ‘This is for you and all of Korea, because you only deserve a bronze.’ It was a protest for all the sportsmen and women of the world against injustice in sport,” Sarita said. “Had I kept the medal, it would have reminded me of the injustice and cheating all my life. So I decided not to accept it.”
The Asian Games organising committee condemned her actions, saying they were very ‘offended’. “If she wanted to refuse the medal she should have not come to the ceremony,” a spokesman said.
An AIBA official said any call pertaining to this issue will now be taken by AIBA president CK Wu.
On Tuesday, Sarita appeared to be cruising into the final after dominating her bout but the judges from Tunisia, Italy and Poland awarded it to her Korean opponent in an unanimous decision. The decision came as a shock to Sarita, who sarcastically applauded the judges and later alleged the result of her bout was ‘fixed and pre-determined.’ India were not the only country at the receiving end of what seemed like dubious decisions.
A Mongolian boxer, who appeared to have won his bout against a South Korean with ease, was declared the loser. Both India and Mongolia lodged an official complaint by paying $500. However, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) rejected the protest saying that their rules do not allow a boxer to appeal the decision of the judges.
Sarita also lashed out at the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials, none of whom showed up to assist or support her despite being present at the venue. Sarita, in fact, had to borrow money for her protest as India’s deputy chef de mission Kuldeep Vats and IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta left the venue as the controversy brewed up.
Even on Wednesday, Vats was present during Mary Kom’s final bout and the medal ceremony. But he left as soon as Sarita began her protest at the ceremony. The IOA officials remained unavailable for comment.