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.

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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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