3 boxers mirror India's Olympic hopes, heartache

Aug. 19, 2008, 8:17 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Even at his lowest sporting moment, Akhil Kumar was buoyed by love for his unrelated brothers.

The bantamweight had just botched an opportunity to clinch India's first Olympic boxing medal, losing in an upset to a young, inexperienced Moldovan opponent. Yet Akhil knew his reaction would affect his two teammates who still must fight - two longtime friends from the same hometown with the same dreams of rewriting India's dismal Olympic history.

So for Vijender Kumar and Jitender Kumar, Akhil kept his shaved head high.

"I cannot be unhappy, because I feel so strongly that my teammates will do what I couldn't," Akhil said.

The trio aren't related, but their bond is something thicker than blood. They're all from Bhiwani, a quiet city of about 130,000 in northern India with an unusual cluster of boxing clubs in a nation obsessed with cricket and fairly uninterested in any Olympic sport.

"I hate cricket," said Vijender, the 22-year-old middleweight with a head of wavy Bollywood-star hair. "I don't like the traditional Indian sports. I hope our boxing here will make more people like it instead of cricket."

India took notice when Akhil beat world champion bantamweight Sergey Vodopyanov of Russia last week - on India's independence day, no less. Vijender and Jitender followed up with preliminary-round victories that were remarkable for a team with such limited experience and low expectations.

Although Akhil failed in his chance to make history for a country with 1.1 billion people and just 16 total Olympic medals, 11 of them in hockey, India's five-man boxing team is breaking ground with every punch.

"They are all lions," said their coach, Gurbakhsh Sandhu. "I am very proud of these boxers. Every victory has been an amazing thing."

The 30-year-old Akhil, with his extra experience and a fearless, sometimes foolhardy fighting style, seems to be the classic alpha-male athlete. Wide-eyed Jitender, who relies heavily on Akhil's advice and inspiration, is also a bit technically imprecise, while Vijender might be the most talented of the three.

The trio's success in such an aggressively macho sport long dominated by hulking Eastern Europeans and impossibly smooth Cubans seems to give an extra thrill to the Indian fans who wave flags, and the reporters who cheer wildly with each successful combination.

Though Indian journalists and sports officials bemoan their nation's lack of corporate sponsorship and governmental investment in Olympic sports, the boxers realize the best way to get attention is to win.

India's interest in the Olympics was piqued last week when Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old maker of computer game controllers and a friend of the boxers, won the 10-meter air rifle competition to earn India's first gold medal in an individual sport.

Bindra was hailed throughout his nation, welcomed home as a hero and nominated by his mother as India's most eligible bachelor. One of his first blog posts was titled, "Monkey off my back!!!!!!!!"

Bindra also wrote in support of India's fighters, and another blog entry expressed most Indian athletes' thoughts about the nation's lack of Olympic commitment.

"It is important for India to do better at Olympic sport as these are the true measure of a nation's sporting depth," Bindra wrote. "The joy that the nation feels at my win is humbling. I just wish that this is repeated more and more often. With our depth of talent and expanse of people, I firmly believe India can be a world-class sporting power."

Bindra called for better corporate backing and governmental commitment to Olympic sports, a desire echoed by Akhil while he was still recovering from his loss.

"We should start thinking about the 2012 Olympics right now," Akhil said. "We are thinking about the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but we never think about the Olympics. It is when India failed to qualify in hockey that we came to (realize) there is something called Olympics. Why is China coming up so fast in sports? Because they prepare well ahead."

Akhil took a step back, rubbed his head and smiled.

"Now I am getting aggressive," he said. "I better go."

He'll be back at Workers' Gymnasium on Wednesday when Jitender takes on Russian flyweight Georgy Balakshin, likely the gold medal favorite in their weight class. Vijender will fight 90 minutes later in the last bout of the quarterfinals in a much more favorable matchup against Ecuador's Carlos Gongora.

Perhaps both will lose, Akhil realizes, and India will wait four more years for a boxing medal. But his younger brothers don't think so.

"This time I will certainly win, to settle old scores," Jitender said. "And when I win the medal, it will be for Akhil."