An Indian woman excelling in boxing was a far-fetched notion at one point. So far-fetched that even Mary Kom, when she was young, didn’t know that girls boxed.
Once, while in school and on the way to athletics training, she saw female fighters sparring with males. And Mary Kom realized, as she said in an interview with Scroll.in, “Arre? Girls have also started boxing?”
It was Manipur in the 1990s. Mary Kom took a liking to boxing. As the eldest of three children of a farmer couple belonging to the ‘Kom’ tribe, brought up almost as a son, she was used to hard labour on the fields with her father, Mangte Tonpa Kom. That was a factor in her feeling a kinship with boxing. She signed up for lessons, unbeknownst to her family, lest they disapproved.
When children win something and their name appears in the media, they can’t wait to tell their parents. But when Mary Kom made the headlines after winning a state championship, she spent some anxious moments. Tonpa Kom, a wrestler in his youth, was fine with his daughter participating in track and field. But he had never green-lit boxing, and was furious when he found out.
Then began a protracted dialogue between daughter and dad about the former’s choice of sport. It was almost like a boxing match, never violent, but always strategic.
“I request, I convince (him)…,” Mary Kom told Scroll.in.
“That was a long discussion going…”
“I said I want to make a career in boxing. He didn’t want to say yes.”
Tonpa Kom’s concern was that there was a high chance of injury in boxing, and he couldn’t afford the extra expense of treatment.
“Finally, he allowed me to box,” Mary Kom said. “But we had an agreement. He said, ‘If you are hurt or injured, it is your responsibility. We will not take care of you.’”
Thus began an inspirational chapter in Indian sport, a big part of which most likely ended with Mary Kom’s last, thrilling bout in the Tokyo Olympics.
The result of the fight was controversial. Despite winning two out of the three rounds against her opponent, Ingrit Valencia of Colombia, Mary Kom was adjudged the loser. But defeat, fair or unfair, does not in the least threaten her place in the pantheon of Indian sport. Nor do her occasional lapses into typical Indian icon traits, such as entitled behaviour and overstaying.
In a nearly two-decade career, Mary Kom won an Olympic bronze (flyweight category), six World Championship golds (across pinweight, light flyweight and flyweight), an Asian Games gold (flyweight) and a Commonwealth gold (light flyweight). She is a winner of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri. More importantly, at just 5’2 and weighing in the region of 50 kg, she has become a beacon for women’s rights and abilities in a patriarchal society such as India.
Manipur clings to the extreme left of the country. This is where Mary Kom was born on November 24, 1982. Miles away in New Delhi, the Asian Games were on. Competing there was Mary Kom’s predecessor as a sporting and gender issues pioneer, PT Usha. Just 18 and on the cusp of her peak years, Usha won two silvers in Delhi.
Usha’s breakout moment arrived two years later, at the Los Angeles Olympics. “You-sha”, as American commentators called her, blazed her way into the 400m hurdles finals, where she clocked 55.42 seconds and came within 0.01 seconds of the bronze medal. Romania’s Cristina Cojocaru, who beat her to the tape, was timed at 55.41 seconds.
Though she missed out on the podium, Usha had made an impact on the biggest stage of all. Post LA, she dominated her events in track and field, traditionally never India’s strength, at the Asian level. This was extremely creditable for that era.
The ‘P.T.’ in Usha stands for Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil. It soon became a popular trivia question. Later, the same happened with Vangipurapu Venkata Sai (V.V.S.) Laxman.Mary Kom’s full name - Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom – also makes for a good quiz question. Yes, it takes genuine achievement for people to want to remember your entire name. But like Usha and Laxman, she has the stature to command that kind of curiosity.