In December 2012, I interviewed Olympian Mary Kom at her modest quarters in Imphal’s Langol Games Village. Besides clinching the Asian Amateur Boxing Championship for a record six times, she had won bronze at London in the year that women first boxed at the Olympics. To report the story of this glamorous and feisty sportswoman, who had pursued her ambition despite being the mother of twin sons with a third on the way, I had travelled nearly 3,500 km to the capital of Manipur. As we conversed, an athletic young woman came by with a tray of tea and biscuits.
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“Nengneihat, this year’s national champion,” Mary declared by way of introduction as the girl, a few months shy of 20, disappeared back into the kitchen. She added, beaming proudly, “Product of MC Mary Kom Boxing Academy!”
Impressed, and suitably shocked, I requested to be shown to the academy’s premises. Next morning, I found myself in a clearing at the foot of the sparsely forested Langol Hills, where trainees in sweatsuits were stretching and throwing punches in practice mitts. Mary Kom supervised them like a commandant. “Do you like the campus?” she later asked me with a cheeky grin.
Mary’s academy, despite producing 21 state-level pugilists, had only just been granted a parcel of land. It had neither a sparring ring nor hostel facilities for the trainees. Many of them, hailing from small villages in Manipur and too poor to afford bed and board in the city, stayed with the Koms like extended family and chipped in with domestic duties. After Mary Kom’s 2012 Olympic achievement, the state government had been forced to get on with the paperwork but it would be five years before it would result in anything concrete. All the while, Manipur, torn by insurgency and blockades that made life hell for its people, and administered under the iron fist of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), continues to produce not only boxers, but diverse sportspersons of extraordinary merit.
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At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, held in 2021 in the shadow of a global pandemic, the Indian contingent returned with a historic seven medals. Mary Kom, now 38 and an incumbent Rajya Sabha MP, had gone down fighting in the pre-quarterfinals. The gritty bout that may well have been Magnificent Mary’s Olympic swan-song has been all but forgotten, only because it didn’t culminate in a medal.
Jingoistic Indians, not fans of sport in particular but of the chauvinistic rush of blood to the head that ensues from the illusion of world domination, are accustomed to memorialising victors. We fete male cricketers for winning a ‘World Cup’ where about ten postcolonial nations compete, but cold-shoulder athletes who are up against a formidable global fray. We made an exception, perhaps, for PT Usha who missed a bronze by 1/100th of a second at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Her dramatic near-triumph set off India’s gold rush. More than 37 years later, we’re still on the hunt, though the jinx has been broken by exceptional performers whose place in public memory has been ephemeral.
A 2016 survey among Indians unearthed the unsurprising finding that, leave alone playing a sport, less than 12 per cent of adults exercise for an hour a week. Oh wait, there’s yoga — casual, languid, and charged with nationalism. Active sport — playing for fun or fitness — has little place in our daily lives. After school and college, where competitive academics are prioritised over physical education, the bulk of us (pun unintended) settle into life goals — and the lifelong mission of accumulating low-density lipoprotein in our bloodstreams. Unless there’s earning potential in it, we’d much rather watch than play.
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Indoor confinement over eighteen pandemic months has probably subtracted many years from our lives. Not that competitive sport isn’t free of stress. We owe gratitude to a few outspoken athletes who have broken the silence around mental health.
Access to quality physical education at a foundational age should be a fundamental right and the mission of the concerned taxpayer-funded ministry. However, like most others, it is primarily occupied with generating revenue. Here, too, we play by quota. Meritorious sportspersons must beseech private benefactors to fund their ambition. Those of relatively modest means must seek lifelong employment in the armed forces, the police, or the railways in order to secure their future. Those that succeed are showered with cash rewards and perks, while pot-bellied officials skim the credit. Those that fail are forgotten. No consolation prizes.
Whatever happened to the sporting spirit? What good is a society that attaches value only to winning, that recognises achievement merely through competition and reward? What about sport for joy, for building camaraderie and cross-cultural bonhomie, for knitting frayed communities? These questions have been raised time and again, yet the ‘softer’ aspects pale against the dominance of sport as commerce.
If there’s one sport at which we’d beat the world, it’s the general election, where we field candidates with questionable track records (track and field taken care of). If booth capturing and horse trading were made Olympic events, we’d finish at the top of the heap.
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