Guest blog: The uncertain future of women’s boxing in India

Our third guest blogger is Indian fencer and sportswriter Samyukta Somvanshi.

Samyukta worked for the IOC’s Olympic News Service (ONS) at London 2012, covering hockey, pentathlon, race-walking, shooting and wrestling.

Here – in light of the IOC’s recent suspension of India’s Olympic Association, and its decision not to grant boxing more medal events for women at Rio 2016 – she looks at the battle to make India a women’s boxing powerhouse, with the help of superstar Olympic medallist Mary Kom.

Mary Kom
By Samyukta Somvanshi

Boxer Mary Kom’s Olympic medal made her an overnight hero in a sports-idol starved India.

But women’s boxing faces a long, arduous road to become a developed sport in the country.

Posters of Mary Kom in her boxing stance, with the tagline “Welcome to the state of the Olympian”, are a common sight in Imphal, capital of her home state Manipur.

The pugilist’s bronze medal in the London 2012 Olympic Games catapulted her to the status of a national icon and household name. Her training academy is set to receive a grant of 3.09 crore rupees (about £321,100 or $490,945) from the Sports Ministry. A biopic on her life will hit movie screens in 2014. A road in Manipur has been named after her.

Her career graph prior to the Olympics had been near-legendary. She is a five-time world champion and four-time Asian champion. Between winning these titles, she took a break and delivered twins. In a year, she was back in the ring and winning again. She is also the first Indian woman to win a boxing world championship, in 2001.

The petite boxer’s fortes are 46kg, or pinweight, and 48kg, or light flyweight. At the London Olympics, women’s boxing had three categories – 51kg or flyweight, 60kg or lightweight and 75kg or middleweight, as opposed to 10 categories in men’s boxing.

Faced with no alternative if she wanted to make the Games, Mary made a move to 51kg by putting on weight. She qualified for the Olympics and won a medal. She didn’t have the luxury of her personal coach, Charles Atkinson, by her side during the most important competition of her life – he didn’t receive an accreditation.

There is more to her story. She was born to poor farmers in Manipur, a north-eastern state of India constantly plagued by insurgencies. Though the state is home to many national champions across different sports, it has always been in short supply of basic facilities. This is where she established her Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation in 2006, for underprivileged youngsters.

For a country the size of India with a population of more than one billion, Mary is one of only three Indian women to win an Olympic medal in individual sports. (Men have received 10 medals in individual sports.)

In women’s boxing, India has won a total of 25 world championship medals, ranking third on the medal table behind Russia and China. Yet the sport, like most other Olympic disciplines, is not wildly popular in India.

Has Mary Kom’s Olympic achievement been a game changer for women’s boxing in India since London?

According to Anoop Kumar, national boxing coach for women, there has been a lot of interest after the Olympic Games – especially in the north-eastern states of India.

Kumar said, “A lot of women have taken up boxing. The number of participants has gone up, especially in the north-eastern states of Manipur, Assam and Mizoram. The government has started offering more jobs in the services to the girls.”

Does this mean India has better prospects and medal hopes at the Commonwealth Games, Olympics and Asian Games?

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The International Boxing Federation (AIBA) provisionally suspended the Indian Boxing Federation (IABF) in December 2012, due to the International Olympic Committee’s ban on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).

“This is a poor position. Not good at all. Training is on but how much can you train? You need to compete internationally. The international federations are afraid of AIBA and so we are not even invited to train or compete internationally,” said Kumar.  

Indian women boxers are currently training with a hope to compete in Commonwealth Games 2014 in Glasgow. Both Glasgow and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games have retained the three categories in women’s boxing from the London Olympics.

“We have more quantity of boxers now. But we need quality boxers. Currently, India has very few good boxers who have experience of seven to eight years. We will have to streamline the current talented pool of boxers in those three weight categories if we want to perform in Commonwealth Games and Rio. Let’s see how we can pan it out,” added Kumar.

Meanwhile, Mary recently delivered her third child and is enjoying her maternity leave.

Her husband, Onler Kom, told Piyali Dasgupta of the Times of India, “Mary will at least take a break of seven to eight months. She wants to take care of the baby. She had put on 75kg during pregnancy and after post pregnancy she became 65kg. Now Mary is trying to lose weight and is 60kg.

“I’m sure she will get back to shape and start her boxing again. She will never stop playing the game. She never did that even after the twins were born. She will prepare for the Commonwealth Games and Olympics. But right now, she wants to take a break and spend some time with her little son.”

Thanks to the 30-year-old there are more women boxers in India. But the talent and enthusiasm needs to match the number.

With the ban on the national federation, limited weight categories in the Olympics and a limited pool of experience, Indian women’s boxing has a long way to go.