The agony of being Mary Kom

IN Media Practice | 31/10/2012
If the brightest child of Manipur feels neglected like this, the press there should wake up and make amends.
Why hound Mary Kom about what she thinks, asks LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK. Pix: Mary Kom

Olympic bronze medalist and five-time world champion, itself a certified rare feat in the annals of international boxing history, and a national award winner many times over, Mary Kom informally told an eager press in Aizawl, Mizoram, on October 19, about her life and experiences in her long career. She said that discrimination and partiality within and outside the sport were the worst enemies of a sportsperson and they could kill the spirit of the game and drag down the players. She urged the press, with all its powers of making opinion, to be sensitive to this aspect of a sportsperson’s life.

Speaking from experience, she said that she had suffered such treatment during trainings and selections outside and in her own State in the run-up to the London Olympics when some sections of the press in Manipur had consistently failed to get her side of the story in the fierce competition for the top slot between her and L. Sarita Devi, another top Indian woman boxer and world champion, also of Manipur.

Reporters would not be reporters if they failed to pick up the newest and most sizzling angle of any event or conversation with a VVIP. Unerringly, they picked this, hitting the headlines in the next day’s papers. The Manipur press was offended. No less than the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) retorted with a statement which said they had supported her when she was nobody whereas the national media had highlighted her only after the world championships and after her Olympic victory. Any doubts could be checked from the archives, they said. If she had problems she should approach them. Mary Kom retracted on her words in Aizawl. Obviously, her camp was under pressure to deny what she had said. On October 22, most newspapers happily reported that Mary Kom had burst into tears before the “State media” and denied saying they never” supported her, a technical point, while admitting that she had said everything else.

But as it turns out it’s a tough conversation to cover up since it was an elaborate story and not an off the cuff remark. Nevertheless for the sake of Mary Kom, the press in Mizoram was ready to be the fall guy and take the blame for the usual “journalists misquoting people’s comments” offence.

No offence meant, but the episode in Manipur needs a reality check.

A person who has reached the pinnacle of success in her chosen career through sheer hard work is surely entitled to express what she feels and thinks, her own perceptions, drawn from her own experiences without being heckled by the press. The press is the flag carrier of freedom of expression and freedom of thought. When a person of such stature--with no political colour, one who has fought lonely personal battles, figuratively and physically, to reach the top of the pile--speaks, shouldn’t the world listen and take a lesson? She is most entitled to say anything and pass any judgment when it comes to her own experiences. Not because of anything else but because she has gone through a path of life that most others can only imagine or read about. She knows. She’s been there.

The same goes for Laishram Sarita Devi, a tenacious fighter to the core. She has every right to do and say what she thinks fit.

The allegation here is that Sarita Devi got her fair share of space from the Manipur press while Mary Kom was left in the cold when the rivalry between the boxing giants dramatically exploded into the public arena in 2010 over the selections for the China Asian Games. Sarita Devi went public about her lack of faith in the selection process by the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF) for the women’s boxing team. She held a press conference and released press statements.  She said selection trials had been held in Bhopal on August 20 and 21, 2010 and that she was selected by the committee for the 51-kg category with two other women for the 60- and 75-kg categories and this was announced in newspapers.

Sarita Devi accused the organizers of keeping this selection confidential and instead announcing a fresh trial on September 22, 2010 at Talakotra. She said that despite her good performance she was deliberately left out by the IBF and that it was an injustice. No friends or media were allowed in. She accused the IBF of hatching a conspiracy to keep her out and called for disciplinary action against the general secretary of the IBF, M. Raja. Unless steps were taken for a trial before the media, she threatened to return her Arjuna Award and never play again.


The Manipur press splashed the issue. The controversy so vitiated the air that the IBF came out with a detailed press statement to clarify the issue. The “other” boxer was Mary Kom who was finally selected for the 51- kg category to the Asian Games in Ghoungzhau.  All she said in Aizawl was that she was pained that they never approached her for her side of the story. It had hurt her, destroyed her concentration, and affected her performance in the ring. Dear press people, please always be fair, don’t do this to your sportspersons, she said in Aizawl.

Things got complicated by the fact that the 46-48 kg category, Mary Kom’s actual category, would not figure in the Asian Games and the Olympics. It would start from the 51 kg. This debate about weight categories vis a vis the two women boxers, Mary Kom and Sarita Devi, generated its own issues and debates about the chances for medals for women boxers. Mary Kom would have to gain three kg to make that slot while Sarita Devi, a 51-kg veteran was asked to move up to the higher slot of 60 kg. Mary Kom was blamed for Sarita’s loss to take a shot at the 51-Kg event. However, it was clarified that the former had qualified rightly.

But the heat generated over these weighty issues in the press and allegations that she was being favored over Sarita resulted in her, a lone tribesperson, being isolated by the other sports people who happened to be all of the valley community. Training sessions and competitions over the two years running up to selections to the Olympics was tough and tension filled. She felt she lost their support, which was so necessary for a sports person in competition, she said. She had to make a personal proposal to the Union Sports Ministry to allow her to train in Pune. There she worked with boxers from Mizoram who were brought over as her sparring partners. The cold shoulder continued even after she won the Olympics.

A check from a few popular websites of Manipur dailies on the days when she won the Olympic bronze revealed many carried agency  reports but none generated by the local press, while national papers and local channels were going gaga and even interviewing her twins. One would have expected local journalists to be more proactive about reporting on sports as Manipur is the garden of sporting talents which has contributed to India’s sporting history.

Mary Kom is a member of a minuscule tribe of about 30,000 members, Kom, which automatically relegates her to the bottom of the community pecking order of the Indian national make up. It’s no secret that they are at rock bottom in the Manipur line up of communities too.

Whether it’s Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam, Arunachal, Nagaland, Mizoram, or Tripura, who better than her would know what it is to be the under-dog. The cold edge of discrimination is the order of the day in any part of the country depending on which community you belong to.  Who better than a member of a tiny tribe of Manipur would know what is it to be at the lowest rung, so low that they are daily forced to make such tricky decisions on to which tribe they belong to, to deal with the lethal armed tribal nationalist struggles going on in these hills.

For example, the Mizoram Press scrambled her brain with the question whether she considered herself a Mizo or from the family of Zo tribes. There’s been a senseless debate going on in the media here about Mary Kom being a Zo and therefore a Mizo, thus snatching a sliver of her Olympic glory. She smartly dodged that politically charged question with, “A Kom is a Kom and a Mizo is a Mizo. We are kindred.”

When Mary Kom proudly and bravely announced on television that she was proud to be an Indian and win a medal for her country, it probably had many people of her region torn between approval and a hint of reluctance to do so. On the other hand, racial profiling by the majority community is a daily affair for the person from Kom’s area anywhere in India and ironically the days she was busy winning Olympic bronze her compatriots were being herded out of the metros by the worst kind of racial discrimination.

When she talked about her hurt dignity when she and another bronze medalist were felicitated with different class of vehicles by the Mahindra group she was speaking with a “north-eastern” sense of discrimination.


She felt it when the Haryana government said they were inviting all Indian Olympic medal winners for a felicitation programme and then did not invite her and another medalist. But she waved this away saying: “A mainlander is a mainlander and North-East is North-East.” Her Chief Minister let her down by announcing a Rs.50-lakh cash award to her at a time when other States were felicitating their medal winners with a crore of rupees. She burst out at him saying, “Ok, you can have my medal at a discount.”   This must have embarrassed the Chief Ministers who immediately raised it to Rs.75 lakh to soothe her ruffled dignity. But he is yet to fulfill the other promises made to honor her earlier wins.

“Its not about the money, I just want total impartial support. I don’t want money. Don’t belittle us, sports people, by giving discriminatory gifts for the same medal. Be equal, treat us equally. Otherwise, I humbly accept all the felicitations big or small as they are in support of a sport,” she said courageously bringing to the fore many issues faced by sportspersons. She exposed the unthinking hypocrisy of felicitations which would otherwise remain hidden. Her frank sharing of experiences and thoughts has proved her to be a true sportsperson. One could ask why she never spoke about this before? Well, the answer probably is “nobody asked” till she landed in Aizawl where curious press battered her with questions.

A reporter claiming to be from the Imphal Free Press (IFP), a respected daily, called up this reporter, currently based in Aizawl, after the boxing star had denied her Aizawl statement. He wanted to know if Mary Kom had really said all those things as he was going to write a follow-up report on her denial. A reporter doing a story on a news report denied by Mary Kom and asking journalists who had written those reports to re-confirm their own reports already carried in the newspapers, and then use it again to confront the Indian queen of boxing? That definitely is the big brother act which Mary Kom was uncomfortable with.

Why hound Mary Kom about what she thinks? If the brightest child of Manipur feels neglected like this, the press there should wake up, take a look at itself and make amends. They would do far better to take the criticism from this greatest boxer the State has given India in the spirit of journalism which stands for the truthful expression of people’s experiences. Intrepid hacks proudly claim for themselves the Voltaire quote, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s better to try and live by it.

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