For a year, Russian women’s team coach Albert Mutalibov went to his coterie of World Champion boxers and like an elder with no plan of how or when things would get better, but just a comforting lie in his pocket, assured them that things would indeed be fine soon. He promised them that they would all be back on the world stage and would soon be competing in international competitions once again. It was the only thing keeping the Russian women’s boxing team and their staff going.
At these Women’s Boxing World Championships in New Delhi, those comforting words sat true, but the return has come at some cost. Russia was one of the select nations in the competition that sent a full-strength twelve-woman squad to New Delhi. But what has happened since then has been something that Mutalibov feared would occur.
With the quarterfinals in sight, only three Russians remain in competition. It doesn’t matter if his boxer is a champion primed with time or a contender that needs more competition, all have been laid waste at these World Championships. A lot of it, he says, is simply because of a lack of elite level competition back home because of the ban.
“We felt the impact of the ban. Even the experienced athletes felt nervousness before the start of the tournament,” starts Mutalibov. “In the 50 kg category, Ekaterina Paltceva was the world champion in 2019. She was nervous before the fight and ended up losing the bout to her Italian opponent. In the 57 kg category, Luidmila Vorontsova was the silver medallist in the 2019 edition. I believe that if the girls had competitive international experience over the last few months, they would have won their fights here.”
Soft launched back into fold
Russia and Belarus were handed a ban from multiple sporting organisations after the Russians started a war against Ukraine in February last year. The war continues to wage on, but athletes from both countries are essentially being soft-launched back into different sports at this point in time, be it with their flag, as has been the case with boxing, or without it under a neutral banner, as has been the talk around other Olympic sports. Boxing is the only Olympic sport headed by a Russian and his move to include Russian and Belarussian athletes back into boxing’s fold with full honours, has been taken as an act of digression by the International Olympic Committee – an act that is one among many that has irked the world body in charge of Olympic sport.
Russian boxers have only participated in one international event before these World Championships in the past year. Covid had impacted travel before that as well and that has essentially led to the Russian team attempting to find alternative ways of training.
“The Russian boxing federation understood the problem and organised many competitions within the country. It was of course not international events such as this one, but the girls got some practice from those events. Of course, it’s not the same and it wasn’t enough,” says Mutalibov ruefully.
There are some athletes though, that took the ban on the chin and continued to persevere. Nataliya Sychugova is one of the three athletes who have reached the quarterfinals. She was in India during the Youth World Championships in 2017 in Guwahati. Competing in the 63 kg weight category (a non-Olympic category), Sychugova rode the ban and took the time to work on her game.
“International competitions are important so it could influence our performance but we were provided with lots of tournaments in Russia over the past year. But this opportunity to resume international tournaments is welcome. I don’t think we missed out on much. We studied techniques and tactics.”
A matter of relief for Mutalibov has been the treatment of him and his team. While the world may question why the Russians are being allowed back into sports, the boxers and support staff at the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall have renewed their relationships with the Russians like normal. Many athletes and coaches from different countries that have travelled and sparred with the Russians at different competitions, treat this like just another event, says Mutalibov.
“I think everybody watches the news and everybody has their reasons but politics should stay with the politicians and boxing should prevail. The countries boycotting the World Championships lost more than what they gained,” says the Russian, who has been to India with multiple boxing teams.
But Russia and Belarus’ return to the IBA-organised events does not mean that the same rules would apply once the IOC starts to organise Olympic qualifiers. As of now, the world body has yet to give a clear statement on whether athletes from both the countries would be allowed to participate at the 2024 Paris Olympics and if allowed, it would be under their own banners.
“We can only hope that in this situation we will be allowed to compete in the qualification tournaments first and then the Olympics. We keep the same position as the IBA president Mr Kremlev. Every country should be allowed to participate,” says Mutalibov.