Controversies were never going to be a sideshow in the London Olympics which started with an Opening Ceremony that had “Pandemonium” as its first act. An unidentified lady in red gatecrashed into the Indian Olympic contingent’s march past at the Opening Ceremony. This was the “honey trap” (called so because of the lady’s name, Madhura Honey). Soon after came the biases and conspiracies, and along with it the heartbreaks, as London, for Indian boxers especially, turned into Milton’s capital of hell.
Eight boxers were touted to create history and topple the record of a single boxing medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Alas, they could only manage just one more — a bronze by MC Mary Kom. If women’s boxing weren’t introduced this Olympics then the boxing contingent would’ve returned empty-handed. At least five boxers, including Manoj Kumar (64 kg), Sumit Sangwan (81 kg), Vikas Krishan (69 kg), Vijender Singh (75 kg) and Devendro Singh (49 kg), were floored by the inefficiency of judges and referees and their easy-to-manipulate scoring machine.
Commonwealth gold medallist Kumar deemed the judging at the Olympics as biased. Kumar, who was defeated by Thomas Stalker of Great Britain in the pre-quarterfinal bout, even likened the Games to a district competition (in India) where there’s a lot of “cheating, cheating, cheating”. India’s Cuban coach Blas Iglesias Fernandez stormed out of the ExCel arena yelling “Mafias! Mafias!” after Vijender’s loss to Uzbekistan’s Abbos Atoev. Boxing experts present at the arena gave a split verdict. Some said Vijender was too circumspect, as he usually is initially, against a boxer of attacking style. Vijender had to remodel his game quickly. Others said that the Olympic bronze medallist did in fact open up. But, as it happens with most boxers, when you open up and drop your guard, you give more chances to the opposition to score points off you. Still others have pointed out that Vijender deserved to win, even though it would’ve been a small margin.
Sangwan lost 14-15 to Brazil’s Yamaguchi Falcao Florentino but whoever witnessed the bout was unanimous (except the judges, of course) that the teenager should’ve won emphatically. A protest was lodged specifically over the scoring in Round Two. “We thought Sangwan should’ve got more points in that round,” said P K Muralidharan Raja, the IBF secretary general and Chef-de-mission of the Olympic team. The protest was overruled. “Daylight robbery” was how a commentator summed up his bafflement.
Vikas’s father, Krishan Kumar, described his son’s defeat after winning 13:11 as “American dictatorship”. Vikas was declared the winner against Errol Spence of the US. But Team US submitted a protest to the competition jury for “number of holding fouls committed by the Indian boxer and spitting the gum shield” which the referee didn’t notice. Rumour has it that the Americans threatened — at least for two straight hours, from the finish of the fight at about 10 pm to 12.21 am — to withdraw from boxing had the decision not been overturned. And the decision was overturned. Indians tried to file a counter-protest with AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) but it was turned down. Indians then lodged a complaint with CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sports). But that too was turned down by CAS stating that “there is no provision in the AIBA Technical and Competition Rules allowing for an appeal against the decision of the competition jury in relation to a protest”. The final score was 13:15 in favour of Spence. As it happened, Spence lost in the very next round against Russia and, for the first time, the most successful Olympic boxing team in history, Team USA, returned home empty-handed. Spence’s loss is being seen as the “lowest point” in US boxing.
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In 2004 Athens Olympics, when four talented boxers, including Vijender and Akhil Kumar, crashed out of the first round, Indian boxing was thrown into chaos. “I noticed that there was no shortage of hard work by our boxers. We were not fighting clever, that’s all,” said Raja, who was then a member of the AIBA referees and judges committee. Thereafter, Indian boxers were barred from using upper cuts and hooks and asked to practise long range and computer-friendly straight punches to score points like the Cubans. The result of these subtle changes in technique came within no time. In 2006, Indian pugilists produced their best-ever show by winning the Commonwealth Boxing Championships highlighted by a four-gold haul. They followed it up with five medals at the Melbourne CWG. The biggest of them all, of course, was the corker from Vijender at the Beijing Olympics. At the Delhi CWG then, Indians fetched seven medals. Indian boxing is now back in 2004. Once more it’s in a state of chaos.
It wasn’t just boxing and it wasn’t just Indians who found themselves in the midst of controversy. In hockey, Indian coach Michael Nobbs claimed that India was denied a rightful penalty in last minutes of the opening tie against Holland. India lost the match 2-3 to start on a losing note. They never recovered from that loss. Shuttlers Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa’s appeal against a group match of Japan and Taipei was also rejected. The Indian pair had hoped to make it to the quarterfinals after four pairs — one each from China and Indonesia and two from South Korea — were disqualified from the Olympics for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match”.
China’s Ye Shiwen brought back “awful memories” when she swam the 400m in world-record time. For the same event in 1996, Atlanta Olympics Michelle Smith, now Michelle de Bruin, was banned for tampering with a urine sample. Shiwen raised suspicion when she swam the last 50m faster than Ryan Lochte, who won the men’s 400 individual medley in the second-fastest time in history. Shiwen’s father, Ye Qingsong, like boxer Vikas’s father, asked the “arrogant West” to stop attacking his daughter. “The western media has always been arrogant and suspicious of Chinese people,” he said. This is true in a way. China didn’t even blink when Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in Beijing.
The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, complained post his Olympic-record 100-meter sprint that the Games has got “weird rules”. He was asked to keep his skipping rope outside the stadium by the security guard without being given any reason for it. And then, while Bolt was waiting to run, “the guy was telling me to line up straight. I was like, ‘Really? We are about to run and they are going to make me stand in a straight line?’ These are just some weird rules.” But things got weirder just when the starter’s electronic gun went off for the 100-meter final and Bolt & Co started to take their foot off the blocks. A Bolt-hater hurled a beer plastic bottle that bounced across the track behind the sprinters. Perhaps, the man’s objective was to mangle the most aesthetically satisfying mobile sight in the world currently — Bolt sprinting. This incident brought back to mind another act from the opening ceremony. Of that of Rowan Atkinson — Mr Bean — ruining the mellifluous theme from “Chariots of Fire” by plinking away at his keyboard with one finger. We now know, after considerable number of controversies, that it was Danny Boyle’s (the artistic director of the Opening Ceremony) way of forewarning us not to expect everything to be picture-perfect in this high-stakes game.