Vijednra Singh In Hot Water
With Punjab police hot on the heels of ace boxer accused of consuming heroin, it is high time he clarified his position once for all in the interest of the sports and his own integrity
Olympion boxer Vijender Singh is in deep trouble. Apart from being a celebrity, he is a senior police officer in Haryana and the Punjab police is after him.
It may be recalled that on March 8 this year, the Punjab police recovered 26 kg of heroin worth an estimated Rs 130 crore from an NRI Anup Kahlon’s house in Fatehgarh Sahib in Mohali district. During the investigation, boxer Ram Singh, who was a sparring partner of Vijender Singh, was questioned.
During the interrogation, Ram Singh allegedly confessed to have used heroine procured from Kahlon along with Olympic bronze medalist Vijender.
However, Vijender vehemently denied the allegation saying he was innocent and his friends rushed to his support alleging that Punjab police was trying to frame up the celebrated boxer. They alleged that the whole thing was planned to destroy the creditability and career of Haryana’s famous sports personality.
This rattled the Punjab police. Though police clarified that the boxer has nothing to do with the drug racket, it added that his name figured in the drug haul on two counts. His wife Archana’s SUV was found outside the flat from which the police recovered drugs. Meanwhile, Ram Singh, too, confessed to have taken drugs.
Under fire Punjab police made it a prestige issue and after a couple of weeks made a startling disclosure that Vijender allegedly consumed heroin 12 times from December 2012 to February 2013, while his boxing colleague Ram Singh took it five times.
“In investigations, it has been established that boxers Ram Singh and Vijender Singh took heroin from arrested Canada-based drug dealer Anoop Singh Kahlon and Rocky for personal consumption between December 2012 and February 2013. As per investigation conducted so far, Vijender consumed the drug about 12 times and Ram Singh about five times,” the Punjab police claimed.
Stepping up the pressure, Punjab police sought Vijender’s hair and blood test. However, the boxer refused to undergo for test. With both the sides sticking to their respective position, sports ministry stepped in and ordered National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) to conduct test on Vijender. The sports ministry said it was perturbed over the whole issue. Referring to media stories, it said, “Such reports in respect of a sporting icon are disturbing and may have a debilitating influence on other sportspersons in the country. It has, therefore, been considered necessary that NADA gets a test carried out on Vijender Singh for his reported use of heroin even out-of-competition.”
It was also leaked to the press that NADA officials reportedly had tried to contact Vijender several times but failed to do so. The boxer missed three dope tests in last one month.
Though it is reported that the boxer finally gave his urine and blood samples for tests to NADA, he had refused to give hair sample. The Punjab police is adamant to have his hair sample saying, “Hair sampling is a technical procedure. After a week-long deliberation with district attorneys and lab officials, we have learnt that hair cannot just be plucked and sent to any laboratory. Then, the validity and certainty of such a test requires Vijender’s availability at the laboratory for 24 hours.”
The Indian Express even came out with an editorial, stating, “Can India afford to lose an Olympian to a drug controversy without first offering him the option of rehabilitation? That is, if he is guilty?”
The sports ministry, after over three weeks of dilly-dallying, ordered NADA to collect Vijender’s urine and blood samples for testing. Why? NADA is a government agency and checks athletes for drug abuse only during competitions or national camps. Its checks are random and unannounced, as was in the case of the six women athletes who were caught.
But in Vijender’s case, he was neither participating in any competition nor was he in a national camp when news broke about his drug usage. His name surfaced during a police investigation. Vijender Singh is a citizen first and then a sportsperson. This, therefore, is a case for the police, and not for NADA. The NADA is also not equipped to test hair samples in such cases. Experts say heroin traces remain in hair follicles for up to 90 days after usage.
It then advised Vijender to go for test to establish the facts. “If he is not guilty, the test will prove his innocence. If he is guilty, the tests can guide the star athlete to a proper rehabilitation programme.”
After all, Olympic medals are not a dime a dozen for India! Can we lose an Olympian to controversy?
Vijender’s case is peculiar. He has not been caught taking performance enhancing drugs before, during or after the events. His case is different than the disgraced former professional cyclist and winner of a record seven Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of all his titles and was banned for life after he admitted to taking drugs or sprinter Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.
However, it is ironical that though India hardly figures in the medal tally of any international competition it has highest numbers of athletes (52) on the International Association of Athletics Federations’s banned list. Only the last year, in the National School championships, 11 junior athletes failed doping test.
Interestingly, the day the sports ministry asked NADA to carry out a test on Vijender – he featured as a celebrity anti-drug campaigner on the April page of the official calendar of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).
The NCB calendar, which features several leading Indian sports personalities, has Vijender’s action photograph and his message against drug abuse: “Drug abuse is a major challenge to the well being of our society and nation. Just say NO.”
Vijender is charged with taking heroine, which is considered to be a highly addictive drug. It exhibits euphoric (rush), affecting anxiolytic and analgesic central nervous system. Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste and is very expensive.
“ARMY WAS MY SECOND CHOICE”
Vijender Singh always wanted to be celebrity. Coming from a small town of Bhiwani in Haryana, he hit the international sporting arena big time with his performances in the ring. Harpal Singh Bedi reproduces excerpts of a freewheeling interactions with the boxer in London couple of days before the Olympics.
How is your journey so far?
Yeh dil maange more. Leander Paes and Dhanraj Pillay were my inspiration during the start of my career. I was always fascinated by them, wanted to be well known in my country like them and play in the Olympics. It has been a roller coaster ride since I started boxing at the higher level. It is a dream journey which is still continuing. Sometimes I do get haunted by a few bad dreams, but still it is enjoyable. Around 1999 or 2000, there used to be advertisements in papers and television channels showing Paes endorsing a sports shoe. The cost of that shoe, I still remember was Rs 650, I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be brand ambassador of products but that was pure fantasy. I sometimes used to laugh at myself for thinking like that, but God has been great. My fantasy has turned into reality. Dhanraj Pillay was another big star those days. I used to read a lot about him and slowly Paes and Pillay became my heroes. I wanted to travel abroad but not as tourist but like my heroes. Another thing which amazed me that some big sportspersons those days used to make themselves unavailable for foreign tours and that made the news. I and my friend Jai Bhagwan were amazed because here we were struggling to be picked up for foreign tour and could never imagine of withdrawing ourselves.
When was your first foreign tour?
Well I was 16-year-old when I first went to Germany and that was in 2001 along with Jai Bhagwan and a few others. It was a training-cum-coaching programme for the junior and cadet boxers.
How did you feel going abroad for the first time?
I and Jai Bhagwan were dumbfounded when we entered into the plane. That was the first flight of my life. I was speechless for a few moments when I sat on my seat.
How was your experience in Germany?
I was a raw and teenager. I was fearless and won gold. Believe me from the very start, I never was overawed by my rivals. I had no clue of scientific boxing, I used to fight and rain blows on the rival. It paid off then. Those were the days of innocence.
Has it been a smooth sailing from the beginning?
No, no. It was not like that. But I took the things in my stride. I had seen lows and highs, but that has never affected my confidence.
Do you think Indian boxers have started bragging too much?
No, no. This is a sign of confidence. Earlier the aim of our senior boxers was to be selected for the Olympics. Now the young boxers want to win. The youngsters have virtually transformed this sports in India with their deeds. I remember that earlier senior players used to scare us by saying that our rival is a world champion or so and it is very difficult to beat him but that scenario has changed. Winning and losing is part of the sport, but how you box makes a difference. I have changed seven weight categories so far. I started from 42 kg and here I am taking part in 75 kg and after this I may shift to 81 kg. I am never bothered about weight categories.
If you had not been a boxer, what would have been your second choice?
Definitely Army. My brother is in Army and took part in the 1999 Kargil war. We are very proud of him.
Are you satisfied with your career so far?
Yes. I thought of playing in three Olympics. But still yeh dil maange more. Laughs…
There is a criticism that you have spent most of your times on acting in ads than boxing.
I was in three advertisements in 2007, but nobody said anything that time. But after I won a medal in Beijing, people started noticing me and taking a dig at me but I am not bothered.
What is your chance in this Olympics?
There are 28 boxers in my 75 kg category. One needs to win five bouts for gold and three for bronze. (He, however, failed to win a medal in London Olympics.) The last 12 years have just flown. I have led a very disciplined and simple life. God has been kind to me.
What about your future?
Film has just started.
Former cricketer Maninder Singh was also once caught by the police while buying the drug and two other cricketers- South African Wayne Parnell and Rahul Sharma are also facing similar charges. Parnell in fact was declared “wanted” in the May 2012 Juhu rave party case, but he has surrendered before a Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act court in Mumbai and was given bail. He plays in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
In 2009, Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps was suspended from competition for three months after he was pictured apparently using illegal drugs.
The swimmer issued a public apology after photo of him inhaling from glass pipe used to smoke cannabis appeared in papers.
Although he stopped short of admitting to using cannabis, Phelps earlier this week issued a statement apologising for his ‘regrettable’ behaviour and for having ‘demonstrated bad judgment’.
Meanwhile, sports journalist Vimal Kumar says that the whole episode shows that our sportspersons are finding it tough to handle money, fame and celebrity status. “I am not sure whether Vijender has taken the drugs or not, but he has to come out clean. He is not helping his case by avoiding the tests.”
Another sports buff and journalist Shiekh Manzoor was of the view that Vijender should take a clue from Michael Phelps and apologies if he has taken the drugs, otherwise, he should fight it out.
“This (drugs) is growing problem in our society and what is disturbing and dangerous that if role models start taking, it will have devastating effect on the younger generation which is already bereft of positive direction,” he added.
A GREAT LEAP FORWARD
Born on October 29, 1985 at Kaluwas in Bhiwani district in Haryana in a lower middle class family, Vijinder Singh Beniwal took to boxing at a young age along with his elder brother Manoj Beniwal. They were coached by Jagdish Singh.
However, Manoj joined Army in 1998. With his boxing credentials, he asked Vijender to continue his boxing training. The elder brother supported him financially. In no time, sports became a career for Vijender.
The talented boxer soon emerged on the national scene winning medals in various competitions. In 1997, he won a silver medal in his first sub-junior nationals and three years later bagged his first gold in 2000 at the national level.
In 2003, he became the all-India youth boxing champion. Same year despite being a junior boxer, he was picked for Afro-Asian Games in which he claimed a silver.
In view of his performance, he got selected to represent the country at 2004 Athens Olympics in the welterweight category. He lost to Mustafa Karagollu of Turkey 20–25 and in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, he defeated England’s Neil Perkins in the semifinals but lost to South Africa’s Bongani Mwelase in the final for a silver.
In the the 2006 Doha Asian Games, he won the bronze medal after losing the semifinal bout against Kazakhstan’s Bakhtiyar Artayev. At the 2008 Beijing Games, he defeated Ecuador’s Carlos Góngora 9–4 to make it to the semifinals which ensured him a bronze medal—the first ever Olympic medal for an Indian boxer.
The Olympic medal followed with number of awards, including the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. In 2009, at the World Championships, he won the bronze and later that year, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) named him number one boxer in the middleweight category with 2800 points.
His boxing style, hooks and uppercut are compared by some experts with style of actor Sylvester Stallone (as Rocky Balboa in Rocky). Vijender cites him as one his primary influences, along with boxers Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, and boxing promoter Don King.
In January 2010, he was awarded the Padma Shri. Later, that year in the invitational Champions of Champions boxing tournament in China, he won a silver medal, losing 0-6 to Zhang Jin Ting in the 75 kg middleweight final. In March that year at the Commonwealth Championship held in New Delhi, he won a gold defeating England’s Frank Buglioni.
At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Vijender Singh was beaten by England’s Anthony Ogogo in the semifinals, leaving him with a bronze medal.
In 2012 Olympics, he beat Danabek Suzhanov of Kazakhstan 14-10 in the first round of 75 kg category. He then piped American Terrell Gausha 16–15, but lost to Abbos Atoev of Uzbekistan in quarterfinals 13–17.
This case can be seen as a blessing in disguise was a view of Prof Atamjit Singh. “I am not giving judgment on Vijender’s case, but it does give us hints which way the younger generation is moving.” He said, adding, “I am alarmed that we don’t have any policy or strategy in place to deal with drug menace. The whole region (Punjab and Haryana) is becoming drug land.”
The controversy surrounding the boxer is also likely to affect his endorsements. “Controversy can take many forms. But this one is the kiss of death,” feels Santosh Desai, managing director and chief executive officer with Future Brands.
Another talent manager, however, feels that it will be difficult to ignore Vijender Singh’s case when the boxer has been associated with Rs 130 crore drug haul.
“Brands are very wary of such things. I don’t think anyone is going to touch him for the next few months,” the talent manager said, declining to be identified.
According to data from Percept Talent, a year-long endorsement with Vijender costs the company Rs 1 crore, while his appearance for 60-90 minutes costs Rs 7 lakh.
It is in the interest of Indian sports that Vijender should come out once for all. ■
By Harpal Singh Bedi