Monday 23 April 2018

Fighting for much more than just a medal

Gold for Mary Kom would win recognition within her own borders, says Dion Fanning

If Mary Kom was an athlete whose story ended when she competed in the London Games, then it would still be remarkable. But Mary Kom has bigger ambitions. Mary Kom wants to win a gold medal in women's boxing. Like so many competitors, she carries the hopes of a country. In Kom's case, she carries the hopes of a billion people.

A country of a billion people would, you would think, shrug if one of its medal hopes failed. What is one wasted opportunity in a country of that size?

There would be plenty more and no need to worry if one failed to come off. But India is a unique country, full of contradictions, intimate and anonymous, parochial and yet with global ambitions. India has won only one individual gold in Olympic history.

The country's sporting ambitions are usually fulfilled through cricket but it isn't yet an Olympic sport. In Beijing, Abhinav Singh Bindra took gold in the men's 10m air rifle. It was India's only individual gold and their first since the men's hockey team won in Moscow 28 years earlier.

There have been other athletes. Milka Singh, known as the 'Flying Sikh' and father of golfer Jeev Milka Singh, finished fourth in the 400m in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, losing out on a bronze in a photo finish. This time, there are other boxers while Bindra returns and their flag-bearer, wrestler Sushil Kumar, could also get a gold.

That is what Kom wants too. She is expected to get a medal but she may yet claim gold in the 51kg category.

"It will be news if Mary fails to get a medal," says Indian journalist, Norris Pritan. He has followed her career and watched as she has developed. "Mary is essentially self-trained using what she picked up from tours abroad."

Her preparation for these games has been thorough. She has trained in Pune with her new personal coach Charles Atkinson and then spent the last week in Liverpool but the journey, in every sense, for the mother of twins has been long.

Kom comes from Manipur, a troubled region of India to the east of Bangladesh and which borders Myanmar. It is remote and concerned mainly with survival.

Yet Manipur had one sports star who caught Mary Kom's attention. Boxer Dingko Singh won a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games and Kom, who had ambitions to be an athlete, decided, after a suggestion from a teacher that her feistiness would transfer well to boxing, that this was the way to success.

Kom has been driven, not by interest in playing a game, but a need to survive. Life is hard in Manipur. Nearly six years ago, her father-in-law was murdered, a brutal casualty of the lawlessness of the region where armed gangs dominate and the Indian authority is distant, in every sense, and hostile.

Kom, who by then was a world champion, considered quitting boxing at that stage. But she kept going, winning World Championships but always with the aim of reaching the Olympics.

It almost didn't happen. At the World Championships in China in May, Kom lost in the quarter-final to Nicola Adams and Olympic qualification was out of her hands. To claim the Asian spot available, she needed Adams to beat the Russian Elena Savelyeva in the semi-final. Adams did and Kom was at the Olympics.

In Friday's draw, Kom learned that she will have to beat Adams in the semi-final if she wants to take gold. Kom has been world champion five times but at a lighter weight than the 51kg category she challenges in at the Olympics.

This will be her only chance of Olympic gold and she does it in part for Manipur. Many Indians are unaware of Manipur and when Kom visited London earlier this year, she told a BBC reporter about the reaction to one of the Indian Diaspora when he met her.

"Our taxi driver was Indian and when I said we were also Indian he stared at us in his mirror and said, 'No you're not, you're Chinese!'"

Her appearance at these Games will bring awareness of her, Manipur (although four other Indian competitors at the games are from the region) and her Baptist religion, all of which have placed her outside the mainstream of Indian life. Being a woman boxer didn't always help either.

"There were social reasons for a long time that Mary was ignored," Norris Pritan says. "Traditionally, we have focused on men's sport not women's. It's not that they aren't encouraged but it's not appreciated. A traditional sport like track and field is something people have seen so they accept it but nobody had ever heard of it so she started with a handicap."

Her fighting career began with her fighting men. "She came from a humble background," Pritan says. "They were so poor so she is strong because she was helping her parents in every way, cooking, maybe going to the jungle to get the firewood and ploughing fields. That is how she became tough. In Manipur, sport is considered a platform to get ahead in life. For her, boxing was not a sport, it was basic survival."

Kom wants India to pay attention to Manipur, using an interview on the eve of the Games to call for money for the undeveloped region which doesn't have regular electricity.

There may be a billion people in India but, as Pritan points out, survival not sport is what concerns most of them.

"Out of this one billion, only maybe one million play any game, apart from cricket. So where is the chance for a medal? When you say one billion, you also take into account the street urchins, the beggars on the road and the people sleeping on the footpath. They don't have money to eat. How can they play sport? One medal is a pretty good score."

When Bindra won gold four years ago, he was overwhelmed with gifts, including $300,000 in cash and a free lifetime pass from the Indian railway company.

In India, they are paying attention to Mary Kom now. She has captured the country's attention as Katie Taylor has in Ireland. Kom's mother is in London, leaving India for the first time to watch her daughter fight for the first time next weekend.

Kom describes her mother as her "source of strength". She will be cheered by a billion people but she gives the sense that she is doing it for an audience of one.

Sunday Indo Sport

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