The tragedy of Sarita Devi

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Savita Devi Asian Games 2014 boxing controversyHer senior and better-known teammate MC Mary Kom might be the one with a biopic based on her life, but Laishram Sarita Devi’s Asian Games story is worthy of one, albeit a tragedy. A tragedy that has seen two acts already — one on 30 September at the fight itself and the next on 1 October at the medal ceremony. The third and final act, yet to unfold, will be scripted collectively by the world, continental and national boxing associations.

The authorities would no doubt be seething after Sarita Devi’s refusal to accept the bronze medal. The mute spectators, as usual, were and will be the Indian officialdom — the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the newly recognised Boxing India and the bureaucrats wearing India blazers and credentials, who were conspicuous by their absence through the entire episode.

Act I, Scene 1
It all began as the 29-year-old boxer from Manipur came up against South Korean Jina Park in the 60 kg semi-final bout. Sarita, a four-time Asian Championship gold winner, dominated the fight, but there was ample indication from the start that things were not going right.

Television viewers back home in India could see the injustice from the very first round, which all three judges ruled in the Korean’s favour. In the second round, Sarita got the verdict in her favour from two of the three judges, and in the third round, it was two in favour of the Korean and one for Sarita. All this while, Sarita continued the fight in the belief that she was well ahead, because she was undoubtedly the dominant fighter.

Things went haywire in the final round, when all three judges ruled in Park’s favour. Even as a clueless Sarita waited for the referee to announce her as the winner, the referee raised Park’s hand. Then all hell broke loose.

Act I, Scene 2
As a shocked Sarita broke down in tears and the Indian officials sat in stunned silence, Sarita’s husband Thoiba Singh rushed to the ring in protest. “You have killed boxing,” shouted Thoiba, who was stopped from entering the ring as the next bout was about to begin.

As Sarita and her husband implored with the officials, the Indian officials stayed mum. Boxing coach GS Sandhu maintained that AIBA (International Boxing Association) rules no longer allow for a protest or appeal. So, there was no official protest initially. But Sarita and Thoiba insisted on filing one. Ultimately, with no other Indian officials in sight, Sarita and Thoiba put together $500 — $400 from their pocket and borrowed $100 from a journalist. With Sandhu’s help, they filed the protest.

The reply came a couple of hours later with AIBA supervisor David Francis’ ‘notice of protest evaluation’ reading: “After review of your protest… about (the) judging of the bout… Following our Article 8.4 in the AOB competition rules, you cannot protest against the judges’ decisions. Therefore, we would like to inform you that your protest is now rejected.”

So, what the AIBA has ruled is that judges are beyond reproach. There ended Act I of the Sarita Devi tragedy.

Act II, Scene 1
On 1 October, a day after Sarita’s defeat, Indian fans and mediapersons were gathered to see five-time World champion Mary Kom fight for gold against Kazakhstan’s Zhaina Shekerbekova in the 51 kg final.

The Indian fans sensed yet another nightmare as Zhaina, who was on the backfoot, was given the first round by all the judges. In the second round, Mary Kom got a split decision (2-1), and it was only in the third and fourth rounds that Mary Kom, not allowing her rival to come too close, kept delivering telling blows. That gave her the last two rounds unanimously and the gold medal.

Delirious Indian fans waved the tricolour and chanted Mary Kom’s name again and again. Suddenly, it seemed that the Sarita Devi incident was a thing of the past.

Soon, it was time for the medal ceremony. First came Mary Kom’s ceremony; there was great joy as she took pictures with her friends and fans. All this while, Sarita was standing quietly in one corner with her teammates.

Act II, Scene 2
As Mary Kom and the other three medallists from the 51 kg competition were led away from the podium, the four boxers from the 60 kg competition were brought around to the podium. There was no hint of what was to come.

There she was, Sarita Devi with swollen eyes, puffed-up face and shaking hands — all evidence of a sleepless night after being adjudged the ‘loser’ in a fight she had dominated all through.

Until this point, despite the forlorn look, she seemed composed. The moment her name was called and she went up the podium, she broke down and burst out crying. When her fans chanted her name, she waved at them. Tears were still rolling down her cheek as the official approached her with the bronze medal.

Then the unthinkable happened. Sarita refused to allow him to put the medal around her neck. After some coaxing, she took the medal, but held it in her hand. By now the cheers and slogans reached a crescendo.
After the athletes were given their medals, the Chinese national anthem started to play. That is when Sarita got off the podium and walked over to Park, who eventually lost in the final, and put the bronze around her neck.

Just like the others in the arena, the Korean was too shocked to react. The Chinese winner could not help noticing the commotion, but kept a straight face. After putting the medal around the Korean’s neck, Sarita went and stood back on the podium. By now, it was the Korean’s turn to go to Sarita and plead with her to take her medal back. Sarita half-hugged Park and held her face in her hands and politely refused, but the Korean persisted. Ultimately Sarita kept the medal in her hands, but left it on the podium when the ceremony was over.

Act II, Scene 3
As the media and officials ran towards Sarita, the medal lay unattended on the podium. A man picked it up, put it in his pocket and tried to leave. An eagle-eyed Indian journalist ran after him, saying, “That’s our medal.”

The security personnel soon caught the guy and took him away. But it was not clear where the medal ended up.

The fans and the media mobbed Sarita and her husband. Sarita posed for pictures and signed autographs. All this while, she kept alternating between smiling and crying.

“I felt that I should not accept the medal because I deserved to be in the final,” said Sarita. “I don’t mind if they take any action against me. But I did not feel like accepting the medal and that is why I did that.”

When an Indian official tried to placate Sarita and Thoiba, the latter started shouting, “Why did Indian official come and speak to us? All they want to do is come and sit on the chairs and take photos.” Thoiba accused the South Koreans of “stealing” the medal.

“It has been 24 hours and not one official has come to speak with me and ask if I am fine,” said Sarita between tears. “I stayed away from my child to train hard. It is not that I did not want to accept the medal. I accepted it and then gave it back to the Koreans. I had to do this to continue with my boxing career or the memory of this incident would have stayed on in my mind. I would now go back and hug my infant child.”

Asked if she understood the consequences of her actions, she said, “I am prepared to face any consequences. All my hard work has come to nought. Kindly see that this kind of injustice is not meted out to anyone else.”

Act III
To be scripted by the AIBA, Boxing India, Indian Olympic Association and Olympic Council of Asia.

The curtain will come down after that.

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