The coveted National Sports Awards be it Arjuna Award, Dronacharya Award, Rajiv Khel Ratna Award or Dhyan Chand Award raise the ‘banner of controversy’ every year – so it didn’t really come as a surprise to see some athletes or coaches feeling ‘let down’ by their non-inclusion for these prestigious awards. There were more than just ‘mild whispers’ about the way ace shooting coach Jaspal Rana was overlooked for the Dronacharya Award that led to much consternation in social media circles.
Indian women hockey fullback Deepika Thakur is another one, who must be feeling ‘hugely disappointed at being ignored yet again – the 32-year-old Haryana girl, who had featured in two World Cups and three Asian Games and had arrived on the international hockey stage much before Indian men’s hockey player Chinglensana Singh (hockey nomination for 2019 Arjuna Awards) had made his senior international hockey debut in 2011. Obviously, there are genuine reasons to feel that Deepika should have been conferred with the Arjuna Awards this time around. But the biggest ‘confusing and surprising’ Arjuna Award pick has been women’s boxer Sonia Lather.
Sonia's recommendation came as a surprise
The 27-year-old Haryana lass, who had made the country proud by bagging a silver medal in the featherweight category (57-kg) at the 2016 AIBA World Women’s Boxing Championship at Astana, Kazakhstan, inexplicably had to wait for three years to get this award. Interestingly, Sonia Lather along with Sarjubala Devi and Saweety Boora were nominated by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) for the 2017 Arjuna Awards, but none of them made the cut that year. There is no doubt that Sonia richly deserved the Arjuna Award, but her recommendation sprang a surprise as her nomination was pitted against the likes of two heavyweights – 2017 World Championship bronze medallist Gaurav Bhiduri and 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Amit Panghal. “The whole process is so confusing – Sonia won the World Championship silver medal in 2016, she was nominated by the BFI in 2017 and won this award in 2019,” said a former boxing federation official pleading anonymity.
And to delve deep, the boxing tale of Sonia Lather has been one that has ‘promised much more than it has delivered so far’. The Indian Railways featherweight boxer first shot into prominence lapping up a silver medal at the 2012 Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Mongolia, and has been regularly in and out of the national women’s boxing team during the time period between 2012 and 2016, until she made a splash at the 2016 AIBA World Women’s Boxing Championship as if to make a statement to everyone in Indian boxing. Her international boxing career appeared to go downhill despite winning a silver medal at the 2017 Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Mongolia.
Sonia never got settled
One is tempted to know why Sonia’s boxing career hasn’t taken off say like Vijender Singh’s career took shape after he had won the 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medal. Her next big international stop was the 2018 Commonwealth Games held in Australia, where she missed out participating simply because the national boxing selectors took a call not to send any boxer in the featherweight (57-kg) – for the record India fielded only four boxers in six weight categories – 75-kg was another category where no Indian women boxer was fielded along with the 57-kg category – it is hard to understand why no boxer were sent for these two categories – in case of Sonia she was a strong medal prospect with World Championship and Asian Championship medals under her belt - one is not sure if any other elements have come together to deprive her a CWG opportunity. To be honest, Sonia never got a ‘settled feeling’ in the featherweight category playing one tourney and then exiting from another.
The 2018 Asian Games was one opportunity for Sonia to make an impression, but she ran into eventual silver medallist Jo Son-Hwa of North Korea and lost to her 0-5 in the quarterfinals – the early Asiad exit put a ‘huge dampener’ on her international boxing aspirations. Sonia had a massive opportunity to make a telling statement in her own backyard at the 2018 AIBA World Women’s Boxing Championship held in New Delhi. She was not invited for the 2018 World Championship selection trials – where her namesake Sonia Chahal got the better of Sakshi Chopra to earn her World Championship berth - the trials were only held for five of the ten weight categories. It was reliably learnt that Sonia Lather had lost to Sonia Chahal in an Inter-Railway Boxing Championship held a few days before the World Championship trials, and that loss went against her as far as summoning her for the 2018 World Championship selection trials are concerned.
It’s a different matter altogether that Sonia Chahal made the most of the 2018 World Championship opportunity and won a silver in the featherweight category – undoubtedly raising the stakes in this weight category and throwing a spanner in the international comeback plans of Sonia Lather. But Sonia Lather is a tough cookie and not one to throw in the towel easily – she showed that winning the gold medal in the 54-57 kg category pipping Sakshi Chopra at the 2019 Senior Women’s Nationals held in Bengaluru. She had won the 2018 Senior Women’s Nationals as well. However, Sonia’s international comeback has been far from being smooth in 2019.
Missing out on serious reckoning
She slipped out of the serious reckoning and was not even considered for the Asian Championship trials, where Sonia Chahal rightfully earned the right to take part after winning the trials. India Open was her first international tourney after the 2018 Asiad, where she capped off a medal-less performance in the featherweight category. It was clear that the competition was indeed hotting up in this category as the likes of Neeraj, Manish Mann and Sonia Chahal took away the gold, silver and bronze medals. Her India Open showing further derailed her international career, as she was not invited for the 2019 World Championship trials – the trials saw Neeraj outbox Manish Mann and Sonia Chahal to pick up the featherweight berth.
The Sonia Lather story has promised so much – call it below-par performance in major tourneys or selection howlers – it is easy to understand that this former World Championship silver medallist hasn’t got the opportunities she deserved – not being consistently called for trials of big-ticket events is not a healthy sign for any boxer. One hopes the Arjuna Award nomination will serve as a big boost to Sonia’s international boxing career – yes, she has to be first off invited to selection trials for big-ticket events to prove her worth in major tournaments – for now her bigger challenge is to make it to the selection trials and take it from there, since there is no better stage than a boxing ring to shut up her detractors. Indian boxing lovers have reasons to believe that they have not heard the last of Sonia Lather as far as throwing the medal-winning punch in the international ring is concerned!