Million Rupee Baby: India’s Mary Kom Could Be the Olympics’ Most Unlikely Champion

Boxing is packed with redemptive tales of poor kids done good. But Mary Kom, India's greatest medal hope, was poorer than many and has come further than most

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Anupam Nath / AP

In this June 14, 2012, photo, Indian boxer and five-time world champion Mary Kom practices boxing at her residence in Langol Games village on the outskirts of Imphal, India

She is a petite female boxer from a country largely run by men, a Christian from a land dominated by Hindus and Muslims, a member of a hill tribe from a tiny Indian state bordering Burma. Mary Kom, or to use her formal name, Chungneijang Hmangte, is an anomaly on a small Indian Olympic squad that consistently underperforms at the Games. But the 29-year-old mother of two is one of her homeland’s top medal prospects, competing on Aug. 5 as the sole Indian entrant in women’s boxing. Her event, the 51-kg flyweight class, is in itself a milestone: women’s boxing is debuting at the London Games, and Kom’s weight class, the lightest, will be the first up in women’s-boxing history.

Boxing tends to be packed with redemptive tales of poor kids done good. But Kom was poorer than many and has come further than most. Her parents were landless farmers from Manipur, a northeastern Indian state that has been riven by insurgency for decades. The area where Kom grew up is ringed by razor wire and darkened by constant power cuts. As a child, Kom rarely ate meat or fish — it was too expensive. She was a natural athlete, though, and her future was in sport. Initially, Kom had moved from her isolated village of 300 people to the state capital to compete in track and javelin. While there, she heard about a Manipuri male boxer named Dingko Singh, who had triumphed at the 1998 Asian Games. Kom was inspired and convinced a local coach to train her as a boxer too. Within a year of strapping on gloves, she was a national champion.

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Now a five-time world champion — three times before her twin boys were born, twice after — Kom will be fighting in an unfamiliar weight class in London. Women’s boxing may have gained an Olympic berth, but the sport has just three weight classes compared with 10 for the men. Previously, Kom has fought as a pinweight, in the 46-kg class, or as a light flyweight, the 48-kg category.

But at the Olympics, the lightest division is flyweight, or 51 kg. So she bulked up by two weight classes to qualify for the Games. On Aug. 5, she will face Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk, who herself scaled down from the 54-kg bantamweight division to flyweight. Kom is now ranked fourth in the 51-kg weight class, while Michalczuk is fifth. If she prevails against the Polish fighter, the Indian pugilist is guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals. (The gold-medal favorite is Ren Cancan of China, with Great Britain’s Nicola Adams another strong contender.)

Despite being one of India’s smallest states, with a population of 2.7 million people, Manipur boasts five athletes who are competing at the London Games, including another boxer from the state capital of Imphal. Kom receives a salary from the Manipur government as a police officer, but she spends much of her time, with her husband, running the M.C. Mary Kom Boxing Academy, through which she is determined to give nearly 40 disadvantaged Manipuri youth a fighting chance. Already, some of her pupils have won national titles. Success too has transformed her family. Although her parents still work in Manipur’s slash-and-burn fields, they no longer have to ration fish and meat — unless a rebel blockade stops food from entering. Meanwhile, Manipur’s underreported violence continues. A few years ago, her father-in-law was killed under mysterious circumstances, possibly by insurgents.

(MORE: London 2012: How the ‘Women’s Games’ Are Inspiring Britain’s Girls)

If Kom can strike gold, she will be doing her homeland a huge service. According to an analysis done by Australian researcher Simon Forsyth, India is the worst-ranking nation in the world if population is factored into gold-medal performance. The country of more than 1 billion people has only ever captured one Olympic gold medal in an individual sport. That victory came courtesy of Abhinav Bindra, who won the 10-m air-rifle event in 2008. (The men’s hockey team has won several gold medals, but not since 1980.) So far, in London, Indian athletes have picked up a silver and a bronze in shooting and another bronze in badminton.

On Aug. 5, her twin sons’ fifth birthday, Kom will begin her quest for an Olympic podium finish. (If she makes the quarterfinals, they are a day later and the final is on Aug. 9.) “Women’s boxing was not at all popular in India, but with some of the women doing very well, that has picked up a little bit,” said India’s boxing head coach Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu, after an Olympic training session. “But we expect Mary will win a medal. She is a very strong and determined girl.”

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85 comments
bhayzone
bhayzone

Mary Kom ... we are proud of you ... so strong, yet so humble .... exemplifies the true spirit of India ... I'm hoping you can inspire more women from all walks of society to step forward and reclaim what is rightfully theirs - glory, pride (and of course, fortune).

kimkimzee
kimkimzee

I'm one happy person to see Mary in glory.But the saddest part is she was and is not well recognised  in her own country like she deserved to be.Five time world champion,no 1 nation wide......and still she is like you know guys.....what she is now.I used to wonder what if mary is from some other country how famous,rich and recognise she would be,get by now.She was ignored for the Baharat Ratna Khel award.India also should focus abit more on other sporting games not only cricket.Though i'm indian i agree with the author.no offence or hard feelings here.Neither i hav nothing to do with her(mary kom),i don;t know her personally either,but i do felt for her as a citizen of the same country.

kimkimzee
kimkimzee

We Indian are all happy whatever the media or any outside media is talking.I think the best thing  we can do for her is that She needs to be recognise by the Govt. of India atleast this time............Five time world champion,no.1 nation wide was ignored for the Ratna Khel award.I used to wonder what if Mary is from other country not India how famous,rich she would have been by now.

Vero Kim Zou
Vero Kim Zou

I used to wonder,if Mary Kom is from somewhere else not India... how famous she wud be.she wud have been a very rich woman by now.Five time world champion...no.1 nation wide still living like a ..... u know.she was ignore by the media,politicians,sports.Even ignore for the Ratna Khel award.I have nothing to do with her in personal,i dnt know her personally but i really felt for her as the citizen of the same country knowing how much she derserve to be notice like our criketers Sachin Tendulkar,M.S Dhoni,so and so.God bless this beautiful,down to earth star.Mary Kom my prayer will always go with you that you wud get recognise this time.

Joel
Joel

one of the best piece i read lately about Mary Kom...

Mayengbam Ranjit Luwang
Mayengbam Ranjit Luwang

Well said, Mary. Hope there are more of such reports on NE in the future. 

As regard, castism in NE or specially in Manipur, I cannot deny that there is no castism among the majority hindu meeteis and the naga and kukis tribes but its not like the Castism in other parts of India. Its because, even the upper caste meetei hindus which are predominantly kshtariyas are converted from their ancient religion SANAMAHISM during 1700's merely 300 years. Moreover, meetei are starting to turning back to sanamahism  from hinduism. Also there are many who are converting to Christianity like myself because its a better religion for us.

Mayengbam Ranjit Luwang
Mayengbam Ranjit Luwang

Well said, Mary. Hope there are more of such reports on NE in the future. 

As regard, castism in NE or specially in Manipur, I cannot deny that there is no castism among the majority hindu meeteis and the naga and kukis tribes but its not like the Castism in other parts of India. Its because, even the upper caste meetei hindus which are predominantly kshtariyas are converted from their ancient religion SANAMAHISM during 1700's merely 300 years. Moreover, meetei are starting to turning back to sanamahism  from hinduism. Also there are many who are converting to Christianity like myself because its a better religion for us.

kumaran
kumaran

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karan
karan

 Ignorance is not the factor here idiot. Even America is obsessed with Baseball. Uk amp; European Countries are obsessed with Only Football but yet there are other participants who participate In other Games. Just say India doesnt have enough talent or people here are too lazy to participate in SUch games.

Vishwadeep Khatri
Vishwadeep Khatri

The problem in this article is "sensationalism". The same that created Oscar award for "Slumdog Millionaire" instead of several greater Indian films with wonderful acting and meaning. The same "sansationalism" that rewards Mumbai Dabbawallas and ignores the brilliance of Infosys. 

Westerners like to see India of Snake Charmers, Dabbawallas, Slum Dwellers. SOmeone should just stop it!  

We Indians are resilient people. Most have lived through odds, but this does not mean you pity any one of us or show us in poor light. Just look at an Athlete as a great player. 

If the player had a tough time in life, let him/her decide whether he wants to share it that way. Do not create sensations just for eyeballs and a media benefit!  We know this media game very well now

rickk99
rickk99

I don't want to be offensive here but the writer of this article seems have very little exposure of this world...so i suggest the writer to get out of her small little country and try to explore the world around her...who knows it might help her writting in future 

ajai
ajai

first of all india is not a land dominated by hindus and muslims. thats where i stopped reading your article..india is a secular country(at least some states) and you should travel the length and depth of the country before writting an article about it or you get embarrassed like this. Everything about india is diverse and each state have different conditions and living standards like different countries in europe, everything about india varies from state to state.. .. some states are christian dominated and some are hindu dominated and some are muslim dominated. get your facts right before writing an article. all of the north east are christian majority states and

southern state of kerala is culturally dominated by 1 century christians called syrian christians who are older Christians than the one in america and uk..how ironic..lol

then there is Goa, i dont even need to explain about..another significant christian influenced state from 1500..or even earlier..

Eugin Robinson
Eugin Robinson

Hey guys where is my precious comment. I took time out to comment your article. Where is it. Where is it. I am getting impatient. 

Eugin Robinson
Eugin Robinson

Ok. Stop. What is this about...... It is TIME.com, a respectable publication's web presence. They would not probably go wrong in their assessment of this country of ours.  Haw Haw.  Haw Haw. I like time. And I like all Americans. I like all of em. Haw Haw.... 

అనిల్ Anil
అనిల్ Anil

All said and done, its about individual will and determination that leads to success in any field. Add to that smartness in today's world. It would be wrong to keep highlighting the low caste/upper caste/rich/poor, etc.. If we really want a world where people fight on equal terms, we should discard these words like ST(scheduled tribes)/BC(backward class), etc. Will we keep pointing out that Usain Bolt is a black american every now and then and keep commenting like "despite being a dark american he won so many medals"? We just call him an American. Right? No self-respecting person would like to be given pity or get some freebies just because they are from lower class of a society. They wuld love to win as an individual and on a global level. And what better stage than Olympics??. And all the best to Mary Kom for her Olympic campaign. Expecting a gold from her!

Indietoo
Indietoo

Um, I am confused- why would you start the article with a Christian/ Hindu/ Muslim angle? As for a commentator here saying there are facts, of course they are- but nevertheless the facts placed in the context of the article are not accidental. Why didn't the author go on to then list the male/ female percentage ratio in India or any other xyz facts? 

Mary Kom is Indian...as are 1.2 billion of us. I went to a school with Hindus/ Muslims/ Christians all sitting next to each other without once discussing religion- some are life long friends. It was a Roman Catholic School run by Catholic nuns. Yet, we sung the national anthem and school song before we sung any religious ones- and all of us participated happily in singing hymns...

So stop with the shallow view of India- and start with the only fact that matters: Mary Kom is Indian, and we are proud of her. 

Whether we've made her life easy/ difficult or given her enough support or recognition is another matter altogether and open to debate.I think not. In a nation obsessed with cricket and cricket alone, every other sport is ignored. 

Zidkim kaymonsang
Zidkim kaymonsang

I don't see any point to disagree with this article!  I hail from the state and i know what its like...The reporter seem to be well versed. Love the article.

Anirban Choudhury
Anirban Choudhury

Appreciate Sajid Waikhom and Mary Brown Smith point of views; guys lets get a grip of the situation, instead of becoming jingoistic; and for the moment wish amp; pray that Mary Kom wins her next bout

Anirban Choudhury
Anirban Choudhury

I don't know what is so condescending about the write-up that some have taken umbrage; the reporter has just narrated facts; and it's a fact that Mary Kom has triumphed against all odds

sgcol
sgcol

How many women heads of state has US had? How many non Christian athletes are in the US team? Any fool can analyze that India has the lowest Olympic medals ratio. But a little understanding or perspective would explain why. Read the much more profound article in "The Atlantic" on reasons for India's poor Olympic record. This is cheap and pitiful.

sgcol
sgcol

How many women heads of state has US had? How many non Christian athletes are in the US team? Any fool can analyze that India has the lowest Olympic medals ratio. But a little understanding or perspective would explain why. Read the much more profound article in "The Atlantic" on reasons for India's poor Olympic record. This is cheap and pitiful.

ApuS
ApuS

BHARATI SHAHDIA: You want western media to portray true picture of North East? Let me tell you what the true story. North East Indians have been systematically subjugated, denied the same economic opportunities as the rest of India and are racially discriminated. The rest of India calls them chinkis. ( Read Indian newspapers about racism against North East people. There is a debate on it in popular media)  Most of the people from the North East come from tribal communities that have exploited by the upper caste and class. The exploitation created an environment for insurgency in the region supported by the people. The Indian government has its army posted in this region. An army that regularly rapes the local women. ( Read recent reports of army atrocities that was caught on tape by a journalist in Assam)   Of course the insurgents have their own vested agendas and the army its own.The people who have everything to lose are the locals: The tribals who converted to Christianity to escape the atrocities of the upper. Now that is the true story of North East India. Now the author has done Indians a favor by showing how someone from such a humble background can make it all the way to the Olympics. The article gives you hope about an individual and the society she lives in: That maybe despite all the horrible stories we hear about discrimination and atrocities committed towards the people of the North East there is still a beacon of light! Additionally, data on India's dismal performance in Olympics should not be swept under the carpet or reports on its society dismissed as western media's bad portrayal of a country. How about seeing it as a chance to open a debate and find solutions to problems ailing India?!

Ashutosh Deshpande
Ashutosh Deshpande

What communal authors are deployed by TIME! Christians are over-hauling in India. They have a large bout and  try to disturb the communal harmony of the nation. This article is testimony to it..

sajid waikhom
sajid waikhom

I am from Manipur, and believe me everything about the article is true, not a western ploy to defame somebody or something like that. Anywayz, I m so proud our boys and girls are shining in the olympics despite our (very) difficult circumstances.

Rishabh
Rishabh

Its high time...you stop stereotyping India...We have risen above all of these prejudices. She is an Indian before every thing else. 

karan
karan

Why stupid people are arguing here?? The only thing that matters here is that Mary Kom is an Indian and I expect her to win as she is the only hope for Indians now to win a Gold Medal. God Bless her!!!

Qwert_Raj
Qwert_Raj

That's Indophobia for you, in case you are unaware of the term and how western media (UK the pioneer) has been building reports on India for the past 6 decades. 

kutsa
kutsa

I think that the reporter at Time has very little knowledge of the region.  I grew up in the US but have learned quite a bit about the Northeast of India after spending time in India.  I also know why the author of the article may have chosen not to call the insurgence or rebels by name - The author clearly did not want to upset China since the rebels are Maoists/Communists and are supported by China.  Also it should be noted that the region the author refers to has a large buddhist population too.

However, this should not take away from the great story of a person that has had to overcome financial hardships to do a country proud. This is what make India great.  She did not have the resources thrown at her like the Chinese athletes or athletes from other countries.  She did it mostly on her own (with the help and knowledge of others that did the same).  Someday the Indian politicians will wake up and do something for the country such as Mary Kom has done by sheer will alone.

D

Anshita P
Anshita P

she is one of the best athletes India have ever produced its not imp to mention India is about hindu ,muslims ,poor or rich its  about Mary Kom ..a  women, mother and gr8 ambassador  of  her sports hope she will win gold good luck to her

Ajanta Paul
Ajanta Paul

Her feat shows that India is no more ran by male. We share the responsibilities. Women are raped here like they r in ur nation, women give birth to babies like they do in ur nation and women do household chores like they do in ur country. Nonetheless appreciate ur story. Just one thing, could you not file the story without camouflaging it with the negatives around in the country. I am sure u could.

Bharati_shahida
Bharati_shahida

Trust a Time reporter to concentrate on the rubbish unrelated part of a wonderful happy success story!  When will western media use reporters knowledgeable about India and fluent  in local languages?  When they really want the  news. Imagine a reporter in France without any French or French history! Also US born Indian origin people are somehow expected to be western media's India experts!

Hannah,  you really created a chance, any chance, to somehow bring in caste/religion.  Maybe the US Jesus freaks can now go on about the power of being Judeo-Christian and not caste riddenHindus. You forgot cow, curry, outsourcing and what your predecessors used to write blithely: " No Pak terrorists in Kashmir" .   

Here is a fine young woman who has won. That is all WE see and are happy. By the way,  you may want to write on the intensive nutrition,  non stop expensive training, careful national searches and giving nationalities to foreign athletes some countries use to win.  

India has had women wrestlers too: Hamida Banoo, in case anyone is interested, was well known.

Hannah and  co. could read the following to begin to understand India:

(All in English until they read Indian languages!) 

Churchill's Secret war (His responsibility for 3 million Indian deaths.)

Decolonizing the Hindu mind (British colonizing destroyed Hindu institutions, schools and their very languages, etc.)

Dowry Murders (UK colonial laws stopped women from inheriting, like seen in J Austen novels, and insisted they take a husband's name and become his property.)

Late Victorian Holocausts (UK's  destruction of Indian farms and resulting  starvation) 

Coming from a looted, enslaved country which faced a European holocaust, it is amazing that we have at all recovered and produced Mary Kom. Other colonized countries like Haiti, Rwanda, Cambodia, are still recovering from the effects of European slavery and theft. 

Hariharan Emerald Bhojan
Hariharan Emerald Bhojan

Mary has been doing what no other Indian did before except Viswanathan Anand, 5 times world champion. India is a failed nation because we cannot appreciate the enormosity of their feats and give them their due. We fail time and again to understand that to be a great sporting nation, we have to start early and be disciplined. Iam currently in china now, people are celebrating the olympics like a festival here. Every winner is appreciated and loser is encouraged to do better. If a world champion like mary kom is denied her coach, it can happen only in india and another failed nation pakistan. Iam tired and frustrated of my country.

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