By Pradip Phanjoubam
M.C. Mary Kom, today is a household name not just in Manipur or the Northeast, but in the entire country. A child of an impoverished landless farmer parents, fighting against all odds to rise to sporting stardom by her sheer indomitable perseverance, grit and talent would be material for inspiring romance anywhere in the world. Indeed, she struck just this very chord in the international arena, prompting boxing commentators during the recently concluded London Olympic to christen her Magnificent Mary. And magnificent she was in every bout she fought even though she was punching above her natural weight against opponents who were heavier and taller.
Much has been already written about the background of this five time world women’s boxing champion in the 48-kg class, how she was initially attracted to martial arts but ultimately came to be drawn into the world of boxing inspired by the achievement of another stellar boxer from the state, Ngangom Dingko, who too belonged to a similar impoverished background, having grown up in an orphanage and then risen to be Asian champion before a hand injury ended his boxing career. Without repeating what is now obvious and commonplace, it would be worthwhile to try an assessment of Mary’s achievement and the nature of the contribution she has made to sports in the country, but more specifically Manipur and the Northeast.
On the national arena, such an assessment would be best done after the dust of the Olympic has settled, and the ritual national self inquisition on how a country of 1.2 billion has consistently had to be satisfied with only a handful of medals, especially in the wake of neighbouring China rising to be a world sporting power, gives way to its obsession with cricket once again, relegating all these questions back into insignificance and ultimately blissful oblivion. To be a little more optimistic however, let there at least be the hope that this time around there would be a shift in the national as well as institutional attitude to sports. While a change of heart of the Indian public will not be so easy to predict, how the government responds to the challenge at least will be visible loudly and tangibly at the presentation of the next Union budget in March, 2013.
Mary is a pioneer in women’s boxing in India. She was five time world champion in her 48 kg weight class, but it must be remembered this achievement was before women’s boxing became an Olympic discipline, and therefore attracting much less interest amongst athletes around the world. It was only about four years ago that a decision to include women’s boxing in the Olympic in a few weight categories came about. It was a foregone conclusion that the competition standards thenceforth would suddenly take a steep climb, and it did, as was witnessed in the London Olympic. That Mary lived up to expectations in the changed scenario is all because of her perseverance and talent, and though not a gold, her bronze medal performance without doubt is a stupendous feat. The point is, the sport is still maturing and its standard has still to reach a plateau so that by the next Olympic in Rio, competition level would have reached a new height. Where the standard stands today will no longer be the standard of champions four years later, so that the next generation of aspiring Indian women boxers would have to rise to that new standard to be in contention. This would apply to Mary too. She has done her job of paving a pioneering path but it would be a different challenge altogether to remain at the top competitive level henceforth, now that the entire sporting world is interested in women’s boxing and would be diverting their resources into it.
The story was very much the same for women’s weightlifting a decade or so ago. Before it became an Olympic sport, athletes from the impoverished fringes of the sporting universe, desperately looking for an opening, did extremely well. During the time the sport occupied only a niche space, the premium for which was on talent and determination alone. Natural sportspersons from unknown corners of the world, in which the remote North Eastern Indian state of Manipur has a prominent presence, then held sway. Pioneers like Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi too emerged as world champion materials, but as the prediction now goes for women boxing, the standard of competition for women’s weightlifting too suddenly rose by several bars after it became an Olympic sport, and the more resourceful nations with better and disciplined sports administration, began wresting away all the top honours.
Understandably, because of the shining path cut by Mary Kom, there would be a spurt in the interest in women’s boxing in India. At least it is almost a certainty that by the next Olympic, there would be a fresh crop of young female boxers from Manipur joining Mary’s league. But they would all have to realise that it is a moving target they chase. Reaching today’s world standard would not be enough, for the bar of international standard in the discipline would have been raised considerably by the time they walk into the international rings.
If the standard of women’s boxing is predicted to be still in a flux, and women boxers have to keep this in mind while aiming to be world champions, the scenario is quite different for men’s boxing and indeed wrestling, two Olympic disciplines in which India never figured in the past, but is now showing immense promise and potential. It was there for all to see that Indian men boxers and wrestlers were of world standard, and with a little luck there could have been more medals, possibly even gold, from the London Olympic.
Men’s boxing and wrestling have been around for a long time, and therefore their standards too have long since been at a plateau. There can possibly be little more for the standards to rise from where they are, unless a rare Usain Bolt phenomenon explodes in them too. Traditional boxing powerhouse nations, namely Cuba, USA, Russia etc do not any longer appear the giants they use to be and Indian boxers were measuring up to them very well in the London Olympic. In wrestling the story is very much the same. On their good days, Indian wrestlers in the London Olympic, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar, could have walked away with gold medals. It was only a matter of chance that the former returned only a bronze medal and the latter a silver medal this time. Since India has a long tradition of wrestling, it would not be unreasonable to imagine there would be, or at least can be, an unending line of wrestlers of their standard in the next Olympics, of course given the commitment and vision of sports administrators in the country. Since the standard of international wrestling, like men’s boxing, is already at a plateau, Indian wrestlers’ standard today would be of world beater standard. It would not be unreasonable to believe that in men’s boxing and wrestling, the path ahead is not as steep as in women’s boxing, and in the next Olympic there would be brighter chances of a better medal harvests in these disciplines.
Thankfully, Manipur and other North East states, including Mizoram, are good in boxing, and it would do the morale of aspiring boxers here good that the standard of boxing they are exposed to at home is of world standard. The young Laishram Debendro too could with a little luck have easily returned with a London Olympic medal around his neck, and he and other equally promising boxers from the state who did not make it this time, can very well do so in the next if they do not lose focus and allow a slip in their standard.
Manipur, and so indeed Nagaland, have very popular cultures of traditional wrestling. This being so, there is no reason why good wrestlers in the modern disciplines, especially in the lower weight categories, cannot emerge from these states. Sports administrators in these states must mark this so that they prepare the ground for grooming of wrestlers of world championship material in the coming decade. Archery too is another area or promise for the Northeast as was demonstrated at London this time. Manipur in the past has also produced very good long distance runners. Sports administrators in the state must make it their duty to look for the answer why this flow of champion material has today come to a trickle.
To return to Mary Kom, the ace athlete is 29 years old today. She would be 33 by the next Olympic. Hopefully she would be able to retain her competitive form then. But by virtue of her achievements so far, she is more than a sportsperson now. A BBC reporter described her as the possible bridge between mainland India and the Northeast: That though she lost her semi-final bout, she won 1.2 billion Indian hearts. She earned public praises from some of the best known Indians, including Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachhan, Burkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and more, apart from congratulatory notes from top officials and leaders of the country. In response, she too has expressed the wish she wants to enter politics to promote sports in the Northeast. If the Manipur Assembly ever gets to have a Vidhan Parishad (Legislative Council), perhaps a nominated member of this House, would not be such a bad idea. For at this moment, it is rather remote to imagine politicians in the state agreeing to set her up as a Rajya Sabha MP, a post currently held by veteran leader, Rishang Keishing. It is equally unimaginable she can compete and win a Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) seat from a reserved Hill Constituency in the extremely ethnically riven polity of Manipur, as she belong to the very small Kom community. The outside chance she can have at winning one would then be from one of the seven constituencies of cosmopolitan Imphal city, but it will be uphill for her here too. But even if these remain a dream, the fact is, the Manipur government has promised to promote her to a Superintendent of Police, SP, in the Manipur Police. Obviously she would not be expected to do routine policing duty and would be instead given the latitude to act as Manipur’s goodwill ambassador from that position. This too would be a good lever for the kind of politics she envisages for herself as a champion of sporting aspirations in Manipur and the Northeast. This indeed would be a truer politics, devoid of the filth that has come to be associated with the vocation these days.