Her punches may not have been in the same league as Mary Kom’s. But with every blow she landed on her Korean opponent, Laishram Sarita Devi’s spirit soared. Pummelled into a corner, Park Ji-na staggered, wobbled and reeled under Sarita’s onslaught. Yet, astonishingly, the South Korean boxer walked away with the honours at the semifinal bout of the Asian Games. In what appeared to be an incredibly biased ruling, Sarita lost the bout. The blatant injustice was felt keenly by the sobbing Indian boxer, who refused to accept the bronze medal. For she had promised her fans a gold before leaving for Incheon.
One of the most talented women boxers, Sarita, along with fellow Manipuri Mary Kom, is credited with raising the profile of boxing in the country. Like Kom, she too comes from the modest agricultural family. But living in the shadow of Kom’s popularity, her World Championship and four Asian Championship titles have gone mostly unnoticed. If Kom was adventurous, chasing away street romeos in her youth, Sarita was more diffident. In fact, she feared the boxing ring. Taekwondo and Kung Fu excited her more. The prospect of wearing gum shields discouraged her. “I feared my jaws would widen and disfigure my face,” she says, speaking about her initial days in the sport. But fuelled by her father’s passion, she decided to pursue boxing.
Humble and frank, almost to a fault, Sarita’s coaches consider her the hardest worker in training camps. After giving birth to her son in February 2013, she prepared for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games with remarkable diligence, losing nearly 20kg. She turned to Mary for motivation. “I realised if a mother of three can make such a strong comeback, why couldn’t I? Mother Mary (Kom) was my inspiration,” says Sarita, who returned with a silver medal from the games. Such was her commitment to the sport that she swallowed the separation from her newborn, who barely recognises her now. Sarita believes that Mary and she have set a benchmark for all sportswomen — motherhood doesn’t stop you from scaling the heights of sport.
Sarita’s disappointment at Incheon was understandable, as was her emotional outburst. But the subsequent act of returning the medal went against the spirit of the game. The controversial decision notwithstanding, she went too far. Athletes work hard, dream big. Sarita too had a dream. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for her. But it’s not the first time a boxing verdict has raised eyebrows at games hosted by Koreans. On several other occasions, boxing scores have come under the scanner. At this edition of the Asian Games in Incheon, even pugilists from Mongolia and Philippines raised their voice against unfair rulings. “My protest was against the system, so that youngsters don’t suffer my fate in the future,” insists Sarita. Her case has exposed the inconsistencies in the scoring system of the sport. The system doesn’t allow points to be displayed until the bout is over, keeping the process of allotting points entirely opaque. With the next world championship set to be held in South Korea in November, it remains to be seen if Sarita decides to participate.
Since her international debut in 2001, Sarita has steadily climbed up the rankings. Punishing schedules, a strict regimen, and poor facilities or inadequate infrastructure have never stopped her. “I love to box,” she says. For a sport that is perceived to be masculine, Sarita and her ilk have defied popular perceptions. Despite their achievements, which surpassed their male counterparts’ at Incheon, there is room for improvement. Competition in women’s boxing has increased considerably. But if the success of the biopic on Mary Kom is any indication, winds are changing course.
At the Asian Games, more than the judges of the semifinal bout, the Indian delegation let Sarita down. Despite their lack of concern, she lodged an individual protest and appealed to the judges. At the medal ceremony, she hugged her Korean counterpart, without relenting on her stand. “I was right. We have suffered from poor officiating. Someone had to stand up.” Sarita took the role upon herself, even if it meant fighting a losing battle. Outside the ring, facing the possibility of a life ban, she was forced into submitting a written apology by Boxing India. Sarita may also face sanctions from AIBA, the International Boxing Association. She may have invited the wrath of Korean spectators but she earned the affection and respect of her Indian fans.
It is perhaps the drive to live a good life that encourages individuals like Sarita and Mary Kom to take up a gruelling sport, where the fear of injury is real at all times. It is this drive that has inspired legions of youngsters. Many more young women are willing to ‘flex’ their muscles and are taking to boxing and wrestling. If they can fly aircraft and don khaki, why can’t they ‘fight’ to make a living?