Interview with MC Mary Kom: "I intend to return for Tokyo 2020!"
It’s a warm day in Bengaluru, and Olympic medal-winning boxer Mary Kom is here as the ambassador of the Midnight Marathon. Having arrived at Smoor Chocolate Lounge to speak with MC Mary Kom, I’m ushered towards the seating area. Almost immediately, Mary stands up to greet me and shakes my hand; noticing how cold it is, she asks me if I wanted something warm. That open, smiling demeanour would endure for the remainder of the interview.
As a sportsperson of her level, she has likely done this countless times before – and yet, the 33-year-old’s first instinct is to check up on others. Just then, her phone rings. “It’s my mother,” she tells me. “Have to take this, just a minute, so sorry.” Can’t escape from mothers’ phone calls anywhere.
Fresh off a disappointing attempt at Rio 2016, Mary is not demoralized. Far from it. Unable to build on two attempts to qualify for the Olympics this year after her immense success at the 2012 London Olympics, it would not be remiss for MC Mary Kom to be disappointed. “I really was very, very sad afterwards,” she says, “but I know that I truly put in my best effort, and a sportsperson should be happy in knowing that they did so.”
After fighting for a wildcard entry – and sadly, unsuccessfully, Mary Kom was unable to participate in the Olympics this year. “I missed it, but I will manage.”
“There are so many more tournaments, and nobody should stop trying,” she says. Indeed, Mary Kom has found success at those ‘so many tournaments.’ Those include the World Amateur Boxing Championships – where she has 5 gold medals and a silver, the Asian Boxing Championships – where she has another four Gold medals, and perhaps the crown jewel – her bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
Her qualification had marked the first time a female Indian boxer had even qualified for the Olympics, and that in itself would have been an achievement. But Mary Kom would go one better, winning a joint bronze at the event and marking yet another first for the country, and for women.
“They used to tell me when I was a kid that as a girl, I shouldn’t do boxing. It was tough in my village,” she says, “and I faced so much in the beginning. It was continuous, too!”
Even after the boxer’s career took off, people were in disbelief. “My neighbours, who lived next to us in our village, would refuse to believe that I could do this, that I was doing this. When I won the medals, they did not believe. The government gave me a 9 lakh (900,000) cheque, they still did not believe.”
Many are still not entirely convinced, but Mary Kom has been the harbinger of change there. “Before, they did not have many sponsors,” she says. “Everyone wanted to sponsor only other sports; (but) now we are getting sponsors for boxers.”
And even within that field, there has been a transformation. “Earlier the men would get so much more. Now, finally, the women are getting equally (sic). The equipment is equal, the infrastructure is equal, the sponsorships are equal, the training is equal. ”
That fight for equality began with the slight boxer from Imphal, Manipur, the daughter of jhum farmers, and it continues and percolates down to the very roots of sport.
“Even in my academy,” she tells me, “there are so many more girls now. They are joining the sport, playing it, doing it well, too.”
Tired of the lack of a framework or a system for young children to get into boxing, Mary Kom set up an eponymous boxing academy in Imphal, where the female demographic has significantly increased. “It was always my dream to want to give back to the sport,” she says, and early on in her career, Mary Kom realized that dream.
But it hasn’t always been easy, she tells me. “There have been so many people along the way who said I can’t do it, or should not do it, or not bother, but I have proved them wrong.”
An icon for women in sport, Mary Kom has also become an idol for young girls to aspire to, in the mould of PT Usha, Karnam Malleswari, Anju Bobby George and Sania Mirza among many others. And that too in a sport regarded still, by many, as ‘for men.’
Now nominated for a seat in the upper house or the Rajya Sabha by President Pranab Mukherjee, Mary Kom, the first boxer to take a post there, aims to use her voice for good. “They shout a lot there, hopefully I do not have to use my punches,” she jokes. “But I hope to use my voice, to make some change,” she adds.
“There has been discrimination, there have been issues, but I will keep fighting. There will always be someone telling you you can’t, but by God’s grace, my effort, and so much help from the government and so many others, I have been able to do it.”
“And I hope that in the coming years, I can win more tournaments – and there’s still one Olympic Games to go,” she says, indicating very strongly she aims to participate in Tokyo 2020.