This is the story of one Indian athlete who went into the Tokyo Olympics promising to saunter his way to a medal, it wasn't Neeraj Chopra but a compact, livewire boxer called Amit Panghal.
On July 31, he made his way to the ring at Tokyo's historic Ryogoku Kokugikan arena, the home of Sumo wrestling, as the reigning Asian Games champion, the No. 1 seed for the Olympics in Flyweight (52kg), the Commonwealth Games silver medallist (2018) and the only Indian be ranked No 1 in the world and to have won a boxing world championship silver (2019).
Not only was he one of the most technically gifted amateurs Indian boxing has ever seen-his abilities of getting inside, or to throw a dangerously disguised overhead punch were second to none-he was also gifted with extraordinary endurance and speed. Videos of him performing fantastic feats of athleticism in training were gaped at by millions on social media.
When he left the ring that morning, hammered by Colombia's Yuberjen Martinez 4-1 in his first-round match, in a fight where he looked like he could hardly stand on his feet, his Olympic dream over before it had barely begun, Panghal was a changed man.
It was the beginning of a self-imposed exile. Panghal quietly returned to India and disappeared from public view. He refused to speak to reporters. His last Instagram post is from July 24, the day he entered the Olympic village. He muted himself on Twitter, except for the occasional birthday wish.
It was as if that one loss had wiped away the boxer's long list of achievements.
It took him almost six months before he agreed to be interviewed. But once he decided to open up, he cast an unsparing look at what happened at the Olympics, why it unfolded the way it did, and its aftermath.
"It is a pain I have to live with all my life," Panghal says softly. "It keeps eating at me."
He appeared frail and weary, looking out at the view of mustard fields sitting in his 14th floor apartment in a Rohtak high-rise, just five kilometres from his village, Mayna.
Dressed in black tracks, a red hoodie and a black skullcap, he bared his wounds-the impending feeling of doom as he headed to the Olympics, the deep hurt of being ignored by his federation and sports administrators after the loss, the lack of support to cope with his grief. Panghal was waiting to be heard, even as he slowly went about, with the help of his family, picking up the pieces of pride that lay shattered in the Olympic ring.
"I have been beaten before, and as athletes, we know we will win some and we will lose some. But that day was different," he says. "It was the worst day of my life. It was the worst bout of my career."
Yet, for Panghal, the defeat did not come as a surprise. Going into the fight, a cascading series of things, stretching back weeks, had gone wrong for him, and he feared the worst.
"I was scared, honestly."
A month before landing in Tokyo on July 18, the Indian boxing contingent camped in the hill town of Assisi in central Italy. The elite boxers were accompanied by some sparring partners and were supposed to undergo out-of-competition training with pugilists from other countries. This is where, according to Panghal and some of the other boxers in the contingent, things began to go downhill.
Panghal claims he neither got the food he needed nor the kind of practice he wanted. Instead of a carefully tailored diet to help them sustain their peak conditioning while maintaining weight, the boxers say there were only cold pizzas and pasta on offer.
There was no nutritionist with the team, which was accompanied by then men's chief coach CA Kutappa, men's high performance director Santiago Nieva (who continues in his position), women's high-performance director Raffaele Bergamasco and chief coach Mohammed Ali Qamar (both lost their contracts post Tokyo) and a few other coaches and physios.
"It was sheer mismanagement," says an official who travelled with the team but who did not wish to be named. "A lot of our boxers are vegetarians. You can't expect them to turn non-vegetarian in a day. A lot of them had rice in olive oil for dinner."
"I am a non-vegetarian, which means I am fairly flexible with my eating choices," says Panghal. "But we hardly had a choice there. There was either pizza or pasta, and even that was served cold. Which athlete can survive on pizzas and pasta?"
Asian championship silver medallist Ashish Kumar, who competed in the 75kg weight class and also exited in the first round at Tokyo, agrees.
"After a few days, we were fed up and we would walk to a McDonald's outlet nearby to get some burgers," Kumar said. "It was far from ideal."
Kutappa did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, and while Nieva agreed that the food was not "ideal", he was surprised that the boxers failed to take better care of themselves.
"As elite boxers you should know what to eat and when to eat," he said over a phone call from Sweden. "There was a supermarket close by where you could get everything you needed. All boxers had been to the same training centre before so there was no surprise factor. We have never had a travelling nutritionist and I don't think we even need one."
But it wasn't long before the inadequate food led to both physical and mental fatigue.
"Within a few days, I could feel my body revolt. I could not concentrate, I would be tired all the time, and to top it all, the quality of practice and sparring was pretty average. Also, it was very hot in Italy at that time of the year, which meant a lot of fluid loss and general fatigue," Panghal says.
Then came the makings of a different kind of trouble.
One of Panghal's regular sparring partners was Martinez, the man who would eventually end his Olympics quest. Panghal realized that the Colombian was picking gaps in his game and finding ways to exploit them.
"As a boxer, you know when someone begins to read your game, and that is not a good feeling," Panghal says. Aware that he could meet Martinez at the Olympics, Panghal requested his sparring partner be changed.
"I was told to carry on," Panghal says.
Nieva bluntly refutes Panghal's version of events.
"Amit didn't make that request," Nieva says. "We granted exemptions to those who requested. Amit in fact sparred the most. He was getting better against Martinez even though Martinez was faster. I wasn't surprised at the result in Tokyo..."
India's men's boxing campaign began on July 23 with the experienced Vikas Krishan Yadav (69kg) going down in his opening bout. Two days later, Panghal's roommate in the Games Village, Manish Kaushik (63kg), lost too.
"The pressure was unbelievable. I had stopped looking at my phone or social media in Italy itself, but nothing helped," Panghal says. "So far, I had only heard of the Olympics pressure, but now I was living it. I could feel it in my bones. I could not sleep properly. The pressure of entering the field as World No 1 was another important factor. I had never been under such tremendous scrutiny, and despite the best efforts of my coaches, I could not stop thinking of the results and its repercussions."
Then his worst fear came true-the draw came out, and Panghal saw that his opening bout was against the one man who had had ample opportunity to figure out his game-Martinez.
"I was scared, honestly, but not of my opponent. I was scared of being tapped out, because Martinez knew the trick to exhaust me," Panghal says.
Matchday dawned, and Panghal woke up worried and tired. His bout was scheduled for 11 am local time, roughly four hours after the weigh-in. For Panghal, who is used to evening bouts and a recovery nap, this was another setback.
"I barely had a fistful of cornflakes for breakfast and went for the weigh-in at around 7 am local time," he says. "After that, there was no time to eat or sleep. On my bus ride from Games Village to the venue, all I could think of was how well Martinez was reading me in Italy."
In the ring, the disaster that was 45 days in making, played out in full over nine minutes.
Panghal imploded spectacularly, even after winning the first round of the bout.
"I was tired, but confident after taking the first round," Panghal says. "But once he (Martinez) started landing his punches, my body just gave up. I could read what he was trying to do, I wanted to sway and duck, and play my in-out game, but my body was frozen. I just couldn't move. My legs were heavy, my hands were tired, I was completely drained. I knew my fate was sealed."
By the time the bell rang for the third round, Panghal was reduced to a stationary punching bag.
"By that time, I had nothing left in me. My only recourse was to defend and look for an opportunity to counter punch. It is not my style, but I had little choice. I decided to make him chase me as a last gasp effort to tire him out."
On TV screens, his unusual strategy played out as an embarrassing attempt at self-preservation at the cost of putting up a fight. Panghal disagrees. "Why would I run away from a fight? Which boxer enters the ring unprepared to take a punch?"
Back in his room in Games Village, Panghal was struck by an aching longing for home. His roommate in Tokyo and fellow armyman Kaushik had already flown back and was cloistered in his home in Bhiwani. Kaushik was among the first people Panghal called up.
"Manish told me he was not stepping out due to embarrassment. We discussed how the Italy camp ruined things for us. He tried his best to lift my spirits," Panghal says. "I spoke to my family too. They said, 'It's okay. One loss doesn't make you a bad boxer.'
"Understandably, nobody spoke to me much after the bout. Coach Nieva asked me what went wrong. I just said, 'Italy not good.' He nodded. Every boxer who lost said the same."
Panghal returned to his village near Rohtak five days after his loss, and shut himself to the world. He stayed indoors, spent time with his extended family, played with the children.
"Playing with the kids took my mind off negativity," he says.
There were, however, no calls from the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) to check on one of their finest boxers. Soon, Panghal lost his place in the national camp too and was not considered for last year's World Championships in Serbia.
All this while, he trained on his own at Pune's Army Sports Institute and SAI's Centre of Excellence in Rohtak.
"The past 4-5 months were a nightmare," he said. "I felt unwanted. Now that I have been included in the camp, I want to put all that behind me and focus on the Commonwealth and Asian Games this year."
Except, he still gets visions of that loss."When I lie down to sleep, my mind goes back to that damned bout in Tokyo, and all sort of insecurities come rushing," he says. "These are difficult mental battles. I think athletes should get psychological guidance to deal with it."
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