(Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
LONDON — India, with 1.24 billion people and just one individual gold medal in its entire Olympic history, is the world’s worst-performing Olympic nation on a per-capita basis. It has lacked the high-level training infrastructure to produce Olympic champs, and in the case of women, it has not fostered an environment friendly to athletic success or even basic rights. A June poll of 370 gender specialists around the globe voted India the worst G20 nation in which to be a woman — ranking it even below Saudi Arabia. And a harrowing 2011 report by the journal Lancet estimated that 12 million Indian girls have been aborted over the past 30 years due to the fact that families prefer to have sons.
The odds that a 5-foot-2 daughter of landless laborers in one of the most destitute, conflict-ridden corners of India would develop into a five-time World Champion boxer and have already locked up at least a bronze medal in the sport’s Olympic debut are staggeringly long, and they’re exponentially longer than the tales of perseverance we hear from athletes in the U.S. or Great Britain. That’s why the bouts of tiny Hmangte Chungneijang Mery Kom — aka MC Mery Kom, the pride of the Kom tribe of Manipur, in Northeast India near the Burma border — have been cause for celebrations at the ExCeL Center, where she has emerged as India’s best hope for its first individual gold since Abhinav Bindra won the 10-meter air rifle in Beijing. Nevermind that Kom doesn’t look traditionally Indian (few residents of her far-flung region do), the 29-year-old’s advancement to Wednesday’s semifinals of the women’s 51kg division has been backed by hundreds of boisterous British Indians waving flags from the homeland. Many among them are women inspired by Kom’s story.
“I am going gaga over this,” said Preethi Hari, a 30-year-old Londoner who was born in Visakhapatnam, India, and was in the stands on Monday and Tuesday. “I cannot imagine how Mery is doing this after having twin children. I’m a mother of an 18-month-old, and I’ve seen a few women in the Olympics who have children. But in India it’s a taboo: Once a woman has a child, she tends to just be with the child all her life. … For us, Mery is a symbol of power, strength and courage.”
On Sunday, after beating Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk in the third-ever women’s boxing match at an Olympics, Kom’s tough veneer briefly gave way to tears. “I am emotional,” she said, “because today is my twin [boys'] birthday, their fifth birthday, and I cannot be with them there. But I’m fighting in the ring, I’m winning, and that will be for them.”
Her sons are back in Manipur, where she and her husband run a free training academy for aspiring boxers in a dirt field adjacent to their small house, with equipment donated by the government. They are better off than most Manipurians, scraping by on her small salary as a policewoman and some contributions from sponsors.
Thirteen years ago, Kom, a promising athlete, left home to move to Manipur’s capital and train for competitions in track and field. But after hearing the story of Dingko Singh, a Manipuri boxer who won an Asian Games gold medal and was hailed as a hero, she begged to start training in boxing. Her parents had no idea of the switch until they saw a newspaper story of her winning a local tournament. “I sent my wife to talk to her because I didn’t know what to say,” her father, Tompa Kom, told the BBC. “I thought, ‘She’ll ruin her looks, never marry or have kids now.’ But then I remembered how fast and strong she was, even as a child, and I thought, ‘Maybe God has given her this gift for boxing.’”
That seems to be the case. Tompa Kom sold his cow to fund his daughter’s boxing training, and Mery Kom won three World Championships before her sons were born — as a 45kg fighter in 2002, and a 46kg in 2005 and 2006. She gave birth to the boys via C-section in 2007, and stopped breast-feeding them after one year in order to resume training. She returned to win the 2008 and 2010 worlds, the latter event as a 48kg fighter.
Due to the excitement over the mere introduction of women’s boxing at the Olympics, the fact that the Games isn’t offering a full slate of weight classes has been glossed over. The current format puts Kom at a huge disadvantage. She’s naturally a 46-to-48kg fighter, but the lowest Olympic class is 51kg, which has forced her to bulk up and face larger opponents for the past two years in preparation for London. Kom faces a formidable challenge in No. 2-seeded Nicola Adams of Great Britain, the 2011 European 51kg champ, in Wednesday’s semis. “If 48kg was included in Olympics,” Kom said, “I’m sure I will be champion. But I have been gaining weight, even though it is easier to lose weight than to gain it.”
At least Kom has received some help. In 2007, an NGO called Olympic Gold Quest was founded by former billiards legend Geet Sethi and badminton star Prakash Padukone to support potential Indian gold medalists, and they identified Kom as a prime candidate. (Saina Nehwal, who won bronze in women’s singles badminton last week, was another.) Olympic Gold Quest paid for Kom to train with Liverpool-based boxing coach Charles Atkinson for the six months prior to the Olympics, as well as providing her with a physiotherapist and — most importantly — a nutritionist to spend three years helping build up Kom’s body for the 51kg class.
After Kom’s quarterfinal bout on Tuesday, in which she used a defensive style, making periodic flurries of quick-and-calculated strikes, to beat 5-foot-6 Tunisian Maroua Rahali, Olympic Gold Rush’s marketing director, Janit Desai, was waiting for her outside the mixed zone. “The big thing for us,” he said, “was about scientifically improving Mery’s weight. We would have loved to make her taller, but it was about gradually getting up to the right weight. There was a misconception that she wouldn’t be able to fight at 51 kilos, but her speed is what sets her apart.”
In the ring, Kom’s deftness and (lack of) size set her apart, but outside the ring, it’s so much more: It’s that she emerged from abject poverty in a far-flung insurgency zone in Northeast India, that she’s breaking cultural constraints placed on women in order to keep fighting, that she’s defying decades of Indian sporting futility to chase its first female gold in the first Olympics to feature women’s boxing. Kom only has one shot to make history — she’ll be too old, at 33, by the time Rio de Janeiro’s Games roll around — and so she says that when she gets in the ring and looks up at her opponents, she thinks of Manipur, and she thinks of the story of David and Goliath.