GONE: Gurcharan Singh’s departure leaves a void in the Indian boxing campAt the Sydney Olympics last year, there were two athletes who lifted Indian hopes. Lifter Karnam Malleswari was one, and she won a medal. Gurcharan Singh was the other but he missed a medal by a whisker.The light heavy,GONE: Gurcharan Singh’s departure leaves a void in the Indian boxing campAt the Sydney Olympics last year, there were two athletes who lifted Indian hopes. Lifter Karnam Malleswari was one, and she won a medal. Gurcharan Singh was the other but he missed a medal by a whisker.The light heavy weight reached the boxing quarter-finals, losing out on a place in the medals tally through a points decision that could have gone either way. Now, six months after the Olympics, Gurcharan Singh, 24, has landed Indian boxing a punch that has left it reeling: he has disappeared.Gurcharan, a serving naib subedar with the 17 Sikh Battalion, went missing in mid-February. His disappearance was kept under wraps until last week. With the passage of time, Indian boxing’s worst fears – that lured by professional boxing Gurcharan has possibly escaped abroad – seem to be coming true.What is more disturbing is that he is not the first but only the latest in the list of runaway boxers from the army. In 1998, Lakha Singh and Debendra Thapa, scheduled to participate in the World Military Boxing meet, slipped out of a Texas airport on the pretext of shopping. They never returned.Gurcharan’s disappearance has come at a time when his coach G.S. Sandhu and the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) were charting out plans to shape him into a world-class boxer. The federation had sent Gurcharan home to his village Roorewalin Punjab’s Ludhiana district in the second week of February to fetch his passport for an advanced training trip to the Czech Republic. But Gurcharan failed to report at the pre-departure camp in Delhi.advertisementUNHAPPY: Gurcharan Singh felt let down after the Sydney OlympicsWhen the IABF informed the Services Sports Control Board (which sponsors army sportsmen) of Gurcharan’s no-show, they checked with his family and were told that he was last seen boarding a bus for Delhi on February 16.”It’s a big blow to Indian boxing,” says Rajesh Bhandari, IABF secretary. Gurcharan was considered young and talented enough to develop into a world-class boxer. “He was a sure bet for boxing medals in the international arena,” says T.L. Gupta, a boxing coach at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.When Gurcharan returned disheartened from Sydney, having missed out on a medal, the IABF promised him greater international exposure and even wrote to a dozen countries known for top boxing coaches and training facilities. Says Bhandari: “The idea was to help him overcome the setback and get on to a systematic training schedule.”At one stage Gurcharan did appear to have set his heart on his sporting career, turning down suggestions of marriage from his family saying it would affect his training. “He was determined to make another attempt at a medal in the next Olympics,” says father Jagir Singh, who retired as naib subedar from the same unit which Gurcharan joined in 1992.His family is surprisingly stoic. “He was heartbroken over not being recognised for his feat at the Olympics,” says Jagir Singh. He reels out instances of hurt and neglect that Gurcharan shared with the family before he went missing.Gurcharan Singh is the third army boxer to have disappeared in the past three years.The boxer’s main grouse was with the army authorities who had expressed their inability to provide him an out-of-turn promotion after his Sydney performance. His last promotion as JCO was in 1995 when he won gold in the SAF Games.According to the family, Gurcharan wanted the army to treat his Olympic feat on a par with that of a medal winner – a case reportedly made by the IABF as well – but it was turned down on grounds of being beyond the purview of existing rules.All that the army had offered him,says the family, was a cash incentive of Rs85,000.The IABF had also collected Rs 3.5 lakh but before they could hand it over to Gurcharan, he disappeared.”His ill-treatment by the army was the turning point,” says Jagir Singh. The denial of promotion apparently angered Gurcharan who had an argument with a senior army officer in Delhi. “He had a feeling that it was the end of the road for him in the forces,” says his father.In January, Gurcharan had even contacted lawyers in Chandigarh to get him self discharged from the army. On finding that the procedure was long and cumbersome Gurcharan opted to become a deserter.There are others who say that the treatment by the Punjab Government affected the boxer more deeply.The Government refused to acknowledge his Sydney achievement. To add insult to injury, the authorities’ refused even to instal a priority telephone connection at Gurcharan’s home. On the other hand, cricketer Harbhajan Singh was honoured by the chief minister with a plot, Rs 5 lakh and a Class I job.advertisementPICTURE OF DESPAIR: Gurcharan Singh’s parents at the family home in Roorewal village in Punjab”The neglect by the state Government added to Gurcharan’s desperation,”says Jagir Singh. IABF officials feel that neglect may be only a part of the reason behind Gurcharan’s disappearance. “The lure of money in the professional boxing circuit abroad may have been too tempting for him,” says one.There is talk that Gurcharan had been in touch with foreign pro boxing clubs after his strong showing in Sydney. According to boxing circles there is good reason to believe that he is already abroad.The incident has also brought into sharp focus a trend among top Indian amateur boxers of moving towards professional boxing. “It takes at least Rs 10 lakh per year to groom a boxer of Gurcharan’s calibre,” says an IABF official.If Gurcharan has indeed fled for the brutal high-stakes world of pro boxing, he won’t be the first. In 1994, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Dharmendra Yadav joined a professional club in the UK, followed by compatriots V. Devarajan, Sanjeev Kumar, Vivek Yadav and Raj Kumar Sangwan.They have tried their luck in professional boxing abroad without much success. Significantly,all the three run away boxers and most of those who turned professional were from the Services, raising questions about the lack of incentives for boxers in the armed forces. “Once the amateurs get trained abroad, they are desperate about the lack of incentive and facilities back home,” says Gupta.All the three boxers who deserted come from poor, rural families making them vulnerable to the lure of money attached to pro boxing. Unlike the private sector, the army – the mainstay of most national-level boxers in India – has stringent rules on promotion of sportsmen. Only an international medal makes a boxer eligible for a one-rank promotion.Worried at the Gurcharan episode, the IABF officials meet in Shimla on May 13 to chalk out a plan to stem this drain of boxing talent. “The key to retaining promising boxers lies in talking to them and keeping their morale high,” says Bhandari.Little wonder, one of the lessons that the boxers are being lectured on at the national training in progress at Shimla is on the pitfalls of professional boxing abroad.