A month ago, India’s diminutive female boxer Mary Kom was just an occasional story on the sports pages. With an Olympic medal in hand, she has become the nation’s newest sports star.
She’s been winning world championships for years, but boxing has few fans in India, and many in this traditional country can’t fathom the idea of a woman landing lethal left hooks. Only now, has ‘Magnificent Mary’ seized the front pages.
Kom, the 29-year-old mother of 5-year-old twin boys, was guaranteed at least a bronze medal with a victory Monday and many were hoping she might bring back the first ever gold medal won by an Indian woman.
But she lost her semifinal match to British boxer Nicola Adams at the London Games on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the recent outpouring of glowing support for Kom didn’t dim after her loss.
“Even though you have to settle for a bronze, Mary Kom you’ll always be our Golden Girl. A true champion,” tweeted Aakash Chopra, an Indian cricketer and sportscaster.
Despite an impressive five world championships, Kom has been outshone by athletes with fewer achievements who have received lucrative endorsement contracts.
Badminton player Saina Nehwal, who peaked at No. 2 in the rankings and won a bronze medal last week at the Olympics, is hard to miss in newspapers and on TV. So is tennis player Sania Mirza, who is ranked 256th in the world and got knocked out of the Olympic women’s doubles in the first round.
Kom has a job as a junior police officer, which pays her about $365 a month, and at least two endorsements, one of them a nutritional supplement.
But fighting back against relative sporting obscurity is hardly a challenge for Kom.
She is from Manipur, an insurgency wracked state in India’s remote northeast. The eldest of four siblings, she worked as a child in the fields to help out her poor farming family.
In the early days as a boxer, she saved part of her food allowance to buy boxing gloves, she said in a recent interview.
She won four world titles in the 46-kilogram category and one at 48 kilograms. But had to beef up for the 51-kilogram category in London. When she isn’t training or raising her sons Rengpa and Naimai, she trains young boxers at her academy outside Imphal, the capital of Manipur.
“It’s a shame she hasn’t gotten attention before. She’s been around longer and winning longer than the other poster girls of Indian sports”
New Dehli lawyer Saad Shervani
But Mary Kom’s moment of glory is here.
“I have almost reached my destiny. My ultimate goal was to win a medal at the Olympics,” she told news magazine Tehelka just before she flew out to London.
Now she even has Amitabh Bachchan, arguably India’s most famous actor, tweeting her messages of congratulations.
“What a story!” said a part of his tweet on Monday when she won her bronze.
Saad Shervani, a New Delhi lawyer, cancelled an evening meeting to watch her box on Wednesday.
“It’s a shame she hasn’t gotten attention before. She’s been around longer and winning longer than the other poster girls of Indian sports,” he said.
In Imphal, the excitement was electric.
“Her challenges have been quite hard always. She’s where she is after having two children, playing in a higher weight category. We are very proud of her,” said L. Kailun Kom, a senior officer in Manipur’s police force. The two are not related.
Large screens were put up in Imphal’s city center so everyone could watch the hometown boxer take her shot at Olympic glory. Many of her fans bought firecrackers, anticipating a celebration.
But the crowd of 200 supporters watching the bout at a sports center in Imphal went away disappointed.
“We were so looking forward to her winning that this has come as very sad news,” said A. Ranjan Singh, a weightlifting coach.
“She’s won the bronze. We will have to settle for that.”