How Boxing saved Sarita Devi from violence but denied her justice
Sarita Devi faced a career-long fight with authorities after her act of defiance on the 2014 Asian Games podium. Boxing might not have given her due, but she says it saved her from the fate of her friends and family members.
Imphal: Sarita Devi is grateful that a career in boxing helped her escape the fate of her five childhood friends, all of whom were killed in 'encounters' in violence-ridden Manipur of the 1990s. And her brother, who is still mentally unstable after the torture he suffered in police custody. But she wishes sports fans remembered her for more than her 2014 Asian Games controversy.
"I won so many medals for the country - at the World Championships, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Asian Championships. But nobody remembers those, everyone just remembers the 2014 controversy. That makes me feel bad," she told The Bridge.
The defiant Sarita Devi shocked the world, becoming front page news in newspapers and on television talk shows usually reserved for rowdy spokespersons, after she refused her bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, alleging bias from the judges towards the home nation's boxer. Photos of her breaking down in tears on the podium are the first results that turn up when her name is searched on the internet even now.
"It was good that the whole country came to know about my fight against injustice, but there was a lot of negativity too. People didn't know the dirty atmosphere inside that needed to be revealed. I wanted future generations to know Sarita had done something for them so that they did not have to face such unfair decisions," she said about the episode that has come to define her career.
Sarita's husband Thoiba Singh, who also suffered a one-year ban due to his outburst inside the arena, said he had a feeling something was going to go wrong even before they boarded the flight from New Delhi with the rest of the Indian team that year.
He said, "There was an eerie atmosphere, like something bad was going to happen. At the Asian Games, all other countries' athletes sat together, cheering for their players. The Indian athletes were not cheering each other at all. Can this be the atmosphere of a team where everything is overboard?"
Neither of them took any names, but both spoke of 'rivals' within the Indian camp who stood to gain from Sarita losing.
Even though most people, including Koreans, acknowledged that Sarita Devi had been robbed by the judges, there were no repercussions. She stayed at home for a year serving her ban, but the ill-will she had created with her act of defiance haunted her for the rest of her career.
In the 2016 Olympic qualifiers, she lost on a split verdict even though it looked as if Sarita was again the clear winner. One judge who had presided over her infamous 2014 bout gave her suspicious looks while giving his points, but this time Sarita made sure there were no theatrics.
"I was leading with 30 seconds left on the clock. I didn't feel a punch in the remaining time, who knows how I lost," Sarita said about that bout.
In the Tokyo 2020 qualifiers, her last chance at an Olympic medal, she lost to Simranjeet Singh in the trials. She raised her hands even in defeat after that match, later alleging that match had also been fixed in favour of her opponent.
An epiphany about India on podium
In boxing circles, it is said Sarita Davi had to suffer a vendetta from the Indian boxing federation for years. She said her few chances at an Olympic dream were snatched away by "dirty politics", but also said it is only gratitude she has for the federation because of the life it protected her from.
"Boxing was God's gift to me," she said.
Sarita always knew she had to do something to escape the life of violence and insecurity she had in Manipur in her childhood, but she had no one who could guide her after her father died when she was 12.
When Dingko Singh was felicitated in Thoubal after his Asian Games gold medal in 1998, crowds of youngsters flocked to him. In that crowd was Sarita. Her sister had made a hand-drawn greeting card for Dingko, which Sarita gave to him by hand.
"That was when I knew I wanted to be someone like Dingko Singh," she said.
At home, where she won sports meets during Yaoshang (Holi) but did not realise yet it could be her escape card, death was always around the corner.
"We were a group of five-six friends in our village. We used to help insurgent groups. We had to, there was no other option back then. All of them died in encounters, only I survived because of sports. My third brother - he also helped them - he was caught and beaten up in jail. He is still mentally unstable because of that," Sarita said about the life she could have been trapped in.
For the next couple of years, Sarita woke up at 3 am every day, walked two kilometres to Thoubal Bazaar, took the first bus from Thoubal Bazaar to Keishampat and jogged to the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex for five kilometres, reaching in time for the 5:45 am morning attendance.
When there was a bandh called due to some demand made by the insurgent groups, she cycled the whole way, pedalling faster than usual.
It was in 2001 at the Asian Championships, her first foreign trip, that she realised what playing for the country meant.
"In the insurgency era, we used to think we are not Indians. From birth, that is what I saw and heard being said, that our fight was against Indians. But when I stood on the podium and heard the national anthem playing for me, I was shocked. Nobody had told me this was the respect they gave to athletes. My coaches hadn't told me, and I never had a TV where I could have seen such a ceremony before," she said.
"I felt so bad about what I had felt about India before that and how different it turned out to be."
Change needed in boxing's scoring system
Sarita did not lose a single fight at the Asian Championships after that till 2017, even though it was her friend and rival Mary Kom who became the overnight star with her Olympic medal in 2012.
As for Sarita, who was known as the technically sounder boxer when the two of them were coming up the ranks, it is the 2014 controversy that remains her lasting legacy - for good or for bad.
Now 40 years old and giving hands-on training to children at her academy every day so that one of her students can fulfil her unfinished business at the Olympics, Sarita has only two regrets from that 2014 episode.
Firstly, that the Korean boxer, Park Ji Na, who she ceremonially gave her bronze medal to, later "told the truth" to the media and accepted that Sarita should have deserved to win. "She was kicked out of the game, it was a matter of prestige for them (Korean boxing). I wish to meet her and thank her."
Secondly, that the scoring system is still as opaque as it was then.
"Our old system was much better, when every judge had to press a button - red or blue - after the corresponding boxer landed a clean punch. The crowd also loved it," she said.
On the new scoring system, where judges award points after each round of three minutes each, Sarita still has her doubts.
"What if the judges are having other thoughts, thinking about family problems? Who can keep their focus for three full minutes? They must be forgetting which boxer was better at the end and just pressing a button at random. They could even feel sleepy. If they close their eyes for a second, they'll forget who was better," she laughed.