MUMBAI (Reuters) - Eight years after agonizingly missing out on their first Olympic boxing medal, Indian boxers will enter the ring in Beijing buoyed by their impressive showing in the build-up to the Games which start next week.
Medal-starved India will send its largest-ever boxing team to the Olympics after five made the grade with Vijender (one name) and Akhil Kumar having defeated Olympic medalists this year.
Middleweight Vijender beat the man voted the best boxer from the 2004 Athens Games in a competition in Taiwan in May while bantamweight Kumar defeated Thailand's Athens silver medalist Worapoj Petchkoom to win a qualifying tournament in February.
Vijender upset Bakhtiyar Artayev on points in the 75-kg class quarter-finals of the AIBA President's Cup and the Kazakh, welterweight champion in Athens, will again feature in China.
National coach Gurbux Singh Sandhu sees his squad brimming with confidence with their achievements being recognized by more fancied foreign teams.
"Their victories over Olympic medalists have made the international boxing fraternity sit up and take notice," he told Reuters. "We are considered worthy opponents now."
The world's second-most populous nation has won only four individual Olympic medals, none of them gold, since it started sending its own team to the Games in 1928.
India have produced many talented boxers but they have won just one Asian Games gold medal since 1982.
Although India's build-up to Beijing was dented by the failure of their men's hockey team, eight-time champions, to even qualify for the Olympics for the first time, the boxing camp is upbeat.
"These performances give a strong indication we are on the right track," boxing federation secretary Muralidharan Raja told Reuters.
"If we get a good draw they will definitely be among medals, he said," looking ahead to the August 8-24 Games.
India missed a boxing medal by a whisker at Sydney in 2000 when light-heavyweight Gurcharan Singh was within seconds of a semi-final spot which would have assured him at least a bronze medal until it agonizingly slipped away in the quarters.
Singh led Ukrainian Andri Fedtchouk 11-10 on points with just 14 seconds left, but a flurry at the end tied the final score at 12-12 and his rival clinched the tiebreak 60-42 on a countback.
Sandhu, a ringside witness to that heartbreak, said the miss had in fact instilled the belief among Indian boxers that Olympic glory was not out of reach.
"That was a great push to Indian boxing, our boxers started believing they can win medals," he said. "Talking to my boxers every day, I realize they have medals on their minds."
Vijender and Kumar, participating in their second Olympics, will be joined by first-timers Dinesh Kumar (81kg), Anthresh Lakra (57kg) and Jitender Kumar (51kg)
An Asian Games bronze medalist and a Commonwealth Games finalist, a teenaged Vijender made a first-round exit in Athens.
"The first time I just about got to know what the Olympics really meant," the 22-year-old told domestic media.
"The experience of so many international tournaments has helped me know what to do and what not."
Akhil Kumar, considered an aggressive boxer, won the bantamweight title at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Sandhu illustrated how Indian boxers were earning recognition abroad.
"In a recent meet in Germany, where several Beijing-qualified boxers participated, we won two silver and three bronze medals," he said.
"Foreign countries are interested in training with us because of what our boxers have achieved. We were invited to Germany and for the first time they paid all our expenses."
One club coach, Jagdish Singh from India's northern state of Haryana, is already celebrating as all the Beijing-bound boxers barring Lakra come from his Bhiwani Boxing Club.
"What else do I want?" Singh told India media. "I'm the happiest person on earth and waiting for the day one of them wins the country's first ever Olympic boxing medal."
(Editing by Dave Thompson)