Back in the mix, boxer Amit Panghal chases his Olympic dream - Hindustan Times

Back in the mix, boxer Amit Panghal chases his Olympic dream

Apr 24, 2024 11:09 PM IST

In the national squad after almost two years, the 2019 Worlds silver medallist believes he can end the male boxers’ wait for a Paris quota spot

Amit Panghal takes a long pause when asked to reflect on the two years he was out of the national team. As he speaks, the words are tinged with anguish. Repeatedly snubbed on the basis of the much-debated evaluation system put in place replacing selection trials, by Bernard Dunne who recently quit as High Performance Director, Panghal was pushed into a dark space that took a toll on his mental and physical health.

Amit Panghal will have his only chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics(BFI)
Amit Panghal will have his only chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics(BFI)

“I grew increasingly pessimistic. I lost all motivation to train. I stopped enjoying the sport I had so dearly loved. I was so close to slipping into depression. The stress also meant I found it tough to maintain weight,” he says. “But I have an unfinished business at the Olympics, and that thought alone kept me going."

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Panghal will have his only chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics, at the second World Qualifying Tournament (May 25-June 2) in Bangkok. No Indian male boxer has made the cut for Paris while four women boxers have.

Having returned to the national team after being consistently outdone by fellow Services boxer Deepak Bhoria under the evaluation system, Paghal fancies his chances in Bangkok. A gold medal at this year's Strandja Memorial tournament has restored in him much-needed confidence.

With the current world championships gold, silver and bronze medallists, and the 2023 Pan Am Games champion having already qualified, Panghal will not face the cream of flyweight boxers next month. There will still be a tricky challenge from Japan and a familiar figure in Colombia's Yuberjen Martinez, though Panghal insists he hasn't been more prepared.

“I lost to Martinez at the Olympics (first round at 2021 Tokyo) and I have been waiting to make up for that humiliation. I know his game very well and I have been preparing accordingly,” he said.

A vocal dissident of Dunne and his selection policy, it is no coincidence that Panghal's fortunes turned after the Irishman’s exit. The same system that adjudged that Bhoria was ahead of him, for selection to marque events, placed him on top in the national camp in March with 247 points. Bhoria was next with 239 points, followed by Anshul Punia (119).

“I didn't do anything extra. I have been training the same way over the past couple of years but was never considered good enough,” he said. “After my Commonwealth Games gold in 2022, I had trained my sights on the Olympics. My plan was to qualify as soon as possible and then prepare for each boxer individually, but nothing went to plan.”

Regular run-ins with Dunne, Panghal alleges, resulted in him being deprived of sparring partners. As per the new selection policy, there are only three boxers in each weight class in the senior camp, which meant a constant shortage of sparring partners in any case.

“There was no individual attention despite only three boxers per weight class. Things were so bad that between World Championships and Asian Games, I sparred with second-rung women boxers. I don't mean any disrespect to them but simply put, that's not an ideal situation."

After one such session, a frustrated Panghal threw his gloves in the ring and left in a huff. "I was really pushed to the limit. My actions meant I lost disciplinary points, which happened to be one of the evaluation criterion,” he said.

After missing the bus for the Hangzhou Asian Games — where he would have gone as defending champion — Panghal even contemplated pro boxing. “I had a couple of people reaching out to me from the UK and I gave it a serious thought too, but the desire to earn back my place proved to be too strong.”

It meant Panghal barely took a break since being ousted. In each possible window, be it during the Asian Games when the national camp was off or during the breaks between camps, he would head to Rohtak to train under his childhood coach Anil Dhankar. He would practice for six hours a day, working on technique and endurance.

"I worked doubly hard. I never took a break. I began each camp full of confidence and optimism but within days, all of that would vanish. Now that I have made it to the Olympic qualifier, I would like to forget that phase. It was a terrible nightmare," he says.

"What kept me going was the support from my coach Dhankar and my childhood friends, some of whom would take leave from work to be with me. That kept me sane. Now that I am back, I want to make up for the lost time."

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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