Writes Suprita Das*
New Delhi: Four years ago, he became the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympic Games. Now, Shiva Thapa, 22, says he’s grown as a boxer, despite the sport itself having stalled in India in the worst possible way over the lack of a governing body. In late 2012, the international ruling body for amateur boxing, AIBA, banned the Indian boxing federation after finding evidence of a rigged election. Ever since, Indian boxing’s administrators have been at war with each other, and the ban has stayed. The worst affected, of course, have been the boxers. There have been no national championships since 2012, the training calendar and camps for elite boxers have been thrown out of gear, and boxers have found it increasingly difficult to participate in international tournaments without a federation to represent them.
In 2012, an unprecedented eight boxers qualified for the London Olympics. This year, with just two chances left to qualify (one tournament is ongoing, the other is meant for pro boxers), Thapa is the only Indian boxer who has assured himself of a place in Rio 2016.
|Shive Thapa is the only Indian boxer who has assured himself of a place in Rio 2016.|
You’re the first and so far the only Indian boxer to have qualified for Rio. Isn’t it going to be a bit of a lonely dressing room for you?
Yes, if nobody else qualifies, it will be a little lonely, no doubt. But I am hopeful our boys have one more chance of qualifying for Rio. Vikas (Krishan Yadav) has given himself one more shot at qualifying through the AIBA pro boxing route, and I am definitely hopeful about him.
You were the youngest Indian to qualify for London four years back. How have you grown as a boxer?
A lot. I am a different person, and a better boxer for sure. When I made the cut for London, it was a dream come true. But it got over in a flash. The last four years have been spent in making myself tougher, and better. The Olympics are always a huge occasion, there is so much more we attach to it than just the competition, and any of us who have qualified who says they are not nervous, are not telling the truth.
But the experience I gained last time, I’m sure that will help. I hope it’s going to be less overwhelming. I have now taken part in two World Championships, two Asian Championships, one Olympics, one Asian Games and one Commonwealth Games—I have fought against many different opponents, which has taken my boxing to a higher level. There is a lot more self-belief in me than before. And the big stage and the spotlight does not makes me nervous.
You were just 18 when you qualified for London. What was that like?
Yes, it’s actually the scenes in my home town, Guwahati, after my qualification, that I will never forget. The road near our house was lined with cars, and people, and members of the media. For days my parents, my sister, they couldn’t do anything normally. That’s why before a big tournament I always try and make a trip back home to see my family. I’ve done it this time too. I just switch off during those days, and don’t even check my phone.
And this time, after your qualified, you posed a question to Sachin Tendulkar on Twitter...
Yes, I am a massive fan of Tendulkar, and he’s played for India in so many World Cups. So I was keen to know how the best sportspersons handle pressure at that level.
And what was Tendulkar’s advice?
He said you shouldn’t think of the outcome, but focus on the process instead. He said that the pressure will always be there, but the idea is to just enjoy the moment, enjoy being on such a big stage like the Olympics, and when you begin to enjoy yourself, the pressure takes care of itself.
You say you’ve become a better boxer. How has that happened given the mess Indian boxing is in?
It’s been frustrating, and disappointing, no doubt. That’s why when I won my Olympic quota in China, it was more like overcoming a huge mental battle. I let out a scream after my semi-final, because I was relieved. In a way, you could say there was that pent-up anger inside me, and I wanted to come out strong despite the huge administrative barriers that, not just me, all of us faced.
During the trials for the Olympic qualifiers, you got a cut above your eye, which means just before the competition, you couldn’t even have sparring sessions. Did that make it even tougher?
Yes, it’s like going to write an exam without preparing for it! I needed stitches for the injury, and then couldn’t spar with anyone for fear that the cut would open. At that time all my training and sparring was in the head.
You realize there could be a scenario where you could be competing in Rio as an International Olympic Committee or an AIBA athlete, and not on behalf of India?
Yes, I hope it’s sorted before that. I know they are making efforts in that direction. We have been competing as AIBA athletes for these two years, and of course it’s very odd to not have anything written on my vest or jacket when I am competing. Sometimes when you’re not in the ring, but somewhere around the competition venue, people come and ask you which country you’re from, and that reminds you of the reality.
What’s been the biggest hurdle in training because of the federation ban for so long?
Getting more tournaments and exposure trips, definitely. See, so much of the scoring and judging in boxing has become subjective, and you can’t do much beyond what the judge has put on his scoresheet. But we have hardly got a chance to compete under these new rules. In Patiala (at the national training camp), we may have the best sparring partners, but anyone will tell you that training and competition are completely different.
So, for example, I have been working on increasing my aggression. In today’s boxing, I think, there is no place for dormant boxers who like to back-pedal and move around the ring without the intent to throw punches and score points. Aggression is key; you don’t have any option but to go for the kill. But it’s only when I am fighting a real bout in a competition that I will be able to judge if my aggression is in the right measure, or am I going overboard.
Every bout, and every competitor, is different. There can be no formula obviously. So getting more competitions makes a huge difference. Still I would say, AIBA has been quite generous and understanding with India; it could have been far worse, we could have been banned from competing completely.
What do you make of Vijender Singh turning pro?
It’s interesting times no doubt, with the road to pro boxing in our country being paved by Vijender who has been a game changer in amateur boxing for us, and now in pro too. I think it opens many doors for boxers, especially younger boxers. Our boys have been going through uncertain times, so they are going to lap up any opportunity. If you look at any other sports, even in India itself, the coaches have been working and training and identifying youngsters for the 2020 Olympics now, and that’s how it must be. But in boxing we don’t have that, because where are the competitions to identify new boxers?
Given a chance, would you be tempted to turn pro? You definitely have age on your side.
I don’t want to predict right now, because there’s nothing else that’s on my target at the moment apart from Rio. I have worked very hard to get my ticket, I have earned it, and want to make the most of it. Any decision on the future is for a later time.
*Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV.