Saturday, August 30, 2007

BBC: Cradle of champions
A tin shed for a boxing ring, worn-out shoes, non-existent infrastructure, water from a hand pump instead of energy drinks — none of these could deter the Bhiwani boxers, reports Raman Mohan from Bhiwani

Unable to find room in the small practice ring, boxers at the Bhiwani Boxing Club practice their moves outside the ring
Unable to find room in the small practice ring, boxers at the Bhiwani Boxing Club practice their moves outside the ring — Photo by Manoj Dhaka

Jagdish Singh (L) has been conferred the Dronacharya Award for his contribution to the advancement of Indian boxing
Jagdish Singh (L) has been conferred the Dronacharya Award for his contribution to the advancement of Indian boxing
— A Tribune photograph

THERE is an almost theatrical element to the Bhiwani boxers’ recent tryst in Beijing. An interesting element in the story is a soldier’s love for boxing in the 1960s, which culminated in Vijender Kumar’s Olympic bronze. This is also the story of resilience of the people of this arid terrain who have managed to succeed in spite of the many odds — poverty, deprivation, hunger and unemployment — which have plagued India’s "Little Cuba" for decades.

Bhiwani’s boxing history dates back to the 1960s when Capt Hawa Singh, a heavyweight boxer from the Army, won the National Championships for 11 consecutive years —1961 to 1972, and gold medals at the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games.

After retirement Capt Hawa Singh did not lose his passion for boxing. He went from one village to another scouting for boxing talent and persuading parents to send their wards to him for training, recall villagers of the area. The retired soldier’s efforts kindled interest in the sport, but not enough to create the kind of boxing mania prevalent in Bhiwani today.

Nevertheless, it was enough to spur the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to set up a sports hostel for boys in Bhiwani in the 1980s. The SAI hostel enrols boys in four disciplines — athletics, boxing, wrestling and volleyball. Boxing became popular after SAI coach Rajinder Yadav was posted there. He decided to complete Hawa Singh’s unfinished task.

There was another reason which was much more basic to survival, and that was poverty. The enrolment in the hostel was a guarantee of a roof, bed and food for the nearby village boys. The rural boys had to hone their skills and excel in the sport to remain worthy of lodging and food provided at the hostel.

The turning point came when Jagdish Singh was posted as the boxing coach at the SAI hostel in 1996. A student of Capt Hawa Singh, Jagdish, with his mentor’s love for the sport soon realised that Bhiwani had immense boxing talent and that the SAI hostel alone could not produce pugilists of international calibre.

So Jagdish, with the support of some local philanthropists, set up the now-famous Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC). After the Indian boxers’ performance in the Beijing games and other international contests, this BBC is as recognised now, at least in the world of sports, as the British Broadcasting Service. The club is housed in a rented building. It charges no fees and barely manages to provide gloves, shoes and clothes to the young hopefuls.

Over the next few years Jagdish’s efforts yielded results and club boxers began winning state-level championships. "These small successes proved to be a big motivation for the club boxers. They also began to get government jobs as a result of their victories in various state and national games. The young boxers soon realised that it was the best way to find a job that brought economic security for their families," says Jagdish. Till date more than 250 boxers have found jobs.

The Indian Railways has done its bit for these boxers. So much so that every tenth ticket examiner is a Bhiwani boxer, or so the locals say. Besides, the Haryana Police and other state and Central organisations, too, have employed Bhiwani sportspersons.

This trend of getting jobs through boxing has caught the fancy of local residents. Satpal Singh owns a rehri from which he runs a tea stall on the Hansi Road. He has a son whom he has enrolled with the BBC. "My son goes the club at four in the morning and then again in the evening. I am too poor to provide him any opportunity in life. Boxing is the only way he can get a job without paying a bribe", he said.

No wonder several private boxing clubs have mushroomed in Bhiwani over the years. At any given time as many as 1,500 young boys are learning the art of boxing in Bhiwani’s half a dozen ‘academies’. "These increasing numbers have led to a stiff competition among the boys. They have to do well to remain in the reckoning. A job is their first goal. Or, rather it was their goal until Akhil Kumar, Vijender, Jitender and Dinesh began to win medals at the international level a couple of years ago. Now the situation has changed. If a job is their first priority, their greater goal now is an Olympic medal," says Kamal Singh of the Bhiwani Boxing Association.

Besides poverty, the Bhiwani boxers have to cope with almost non-existent infrastructure. The BBC has no drinking water facility. The club has only a hand pump. The boxing ring in the BBC is in a tin shed, which heats up so much in summer that it is almost impossible to practice there even in the evenings. "But I don’t consider these a disadvantage anymore. Perhaps this has spurred us to overcome all the hurdles on the way to a medal. If we can win medals eating chana instead of almonds and drink lemonade instead of imported energy drinks, then we can even win barefoot under conditions like this," says Rajinder, a budding boxer. His worn out shoes are proof of his steely resolve.

Mittals Champions Trust of the steel baron L.N. Mittal is adding to the Bhiwani boxers’ resolve. The trust has been helping Akhil and his younger, fellow boxers. Vijender, too, gets a scholarship from the trust, which has helped him improve his skills and also build a decent house for his family. The trust provided financial help for Akhil’s treatment when an injury threatened to keep him out of the Beijing Olympics.

The Haryana Government has finally stepped in to keep Bhiwani on the international boxing map. Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda announced that a boxing academy would be set up here after Vijender won the bronze. Officials say it would be on the lines of the famous Australian Sports Academy.

It remains to be seen what the boxers would get by way of dietary and other allowances after the academy is set up. Akhil and his fellow boxers had, so far, been getting only Rs 100 a day as diet allowance for years, whereas a boxer normally needs five times more calories in a day than a normal male.

However, things are looking up. The conferring of the Dronacharya Award on Jagdish Singh, the man who transformed Indian boxing, is an indication of the changing scenario. The Haryana Government has now given the man, whose Herculean efforts went unnoticed until a fortnight ago, an incentive of Rs 25 lakh.

Nevertheless, the bravehearts of Bhiwani have learnt to take deprivation and obstacles in their stride. For Bhiwani this is just the beginning. The 2012 London Olympics will see India dominate the boxing scene is the conviction here. And, there is no reason to doubt the determination of those who have survived the odds so far.