Who after Mary Kom?
If the Olympic medallist and five-time world champion M.C. Mary Kom’s exploits have inspired women to take up boxing, it is here that its effects can be fully appreciated: a school full of girls, some as young as 6, throwing punches and cutting loose, a chorus of little voices raised in sporting cacophony.
On a steamy morning, the grass wet with overnight rain, Mandeep Kaur Sandhu, 15, is getting ready for a fight. She is slight, sinewy and fidgety. She squints and bites her lip hard when she concentrates, like she is doing now, taping her hands carefully and deftly. She signals for a friend to help tighten the straps on her gloves and helmet. She springs into the ring, inside a shed caged like a chicken coop, and begins sparring with a boy twice her size. She throws a long left-handed jab at the boy, who weaves away. A smile begins to appear on the boy’s face; it is cut short abruptly by a right hook that lands on the cheekbone.
She was only too happy to. “I found that it came very naturally to me,” she says. “I did not feel scared even once. Even if I got hit, it was fun. I loved the feeling of moving in the ring.”
The Sher-e-Punjab academy, like many of the forward-looking projects implemented in Chakar, is the brainchild of two NRI brothers from the village: Ajmer Singh Sidhu, who died last year, and his twin Baldev Singh.
The story of the Sidhu brothers is too riveting to be left untold. It begins with their father Ujagar Singh, born in Chakar. In 1935, Ujagar joined the Indian Army. When World War II broke out, he was serving under the British in Egypt. In 1941, Ujagar was captured by the Italians and deported to Germany as a prisoner of war. There, he met the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, who had come to raise a unit of his Indian National Army (INA), urging Indian prisoners of war to join. Ujagar signed up, though he never got to see action in the war again. After independence, Ujagar struggled to make ends meet in his village and, in 1965, moved to England to work in a factory making aluminium and copper tubes. He worked there for 17 years. In 1967, he moved his wife and 15-year-old twin sons to England.
“The 1960s were a time of intense racism,” Baldev says on the phone from Toronto. “We were fighting every day in school. We learnt boxing for self-defence. And we have always loved football, so we played football as well, and that actually helped us integrate.”
With boxing and football playing such an important role in their lives, the two brothers, who moved to Canada in the 1980s to set up their own businesses, also founded a community football club. “We used to come to our village every year, and every year we saw more drugs, more violence, things falling apart,” Baldev says. “And for a long time we thought we have to do something. It was only natural that we started an academy for football and boxing.”
It began in 2006 with a football and 20-odd boys. Within a couple of years, with the help of people like Balwant Singh Sandhu, a Chakar resident and Punjab University teacher, and other villagers, the centre was thronging with budding footballers and boxers, both men and women. Right now, the academy has more than 350 students, 150 of whom are women boxers. “We always knew women’s boxing was going to be big here,” Baldev says. “This was always an aggressive, combative village, both men and women.”
They come from all kinds of backgrounds and situations: Some come in BMWs, most come on foot. They are daughters of rich farmers, poor farmers, businessmen, landless labourers, factory workers and entrepreneurs. There is Jaspreet Kaur, 15, whose father is a driver in Saudi Arabia and comes home once for three weeks every year; her mother put her into boxing. The coaches believe she is on the cusp of a breakthrough. There is Arsh Kaur, 11, whose parents are farm labourers, and she has just one set of clothes she wears everywhere. Daljyot Kaur is 9, with a toothy smile and a lisp; her parents run a small shop. The parents of Gattu “guts” Kaur, 11, who got her name because she can take punches without flinching, are construction labourers.Just how much difference can one centre—equipped with one ring, a large ground and a small gymnasium—make? In just the last two years, the girls from Chakar have won five international medals and 10 national medals in boxing. Of the four women from Punjab in the 30-strong senior national coaching camp for boxers, three are from Chakar.
Muskan, 19, is one of the Chakar boxers with the senior team, picked this year after she won a medal at the national championships. “I remember Balwant Singh coming to our house, telling my parents that there’s a boxing academy being opened, and that he needed tough girls to join,” Muskan says. “I was very young then—in class V—but my sister Shvinder went to train. Then Shvinder started winning state championships, and more girls started coming.”
Muskan’s father, a hotel receptionist, and her mother, a beautician, pushed her to start boxing as well. “I had no interest in boxing,” she says. “When I got hit, it was awful. If there was a bout day, I would be down with fever. But my dad kept going to the academy with me, every day he would go running with me, and then I finally started loving it.”
All the boxers and coaches at Chakar agree that Mary Kom has been a huge influence in getting girls into the ring.
“She really proved that boxing is not just a sport for men,” says Surinder Kaur, 32, the boxing coach at the academy. “And after she won the Olympic medal, then it really opened things up. Now girls could really get into the sport, make it a career.”
Inclusion in the Olympics can really change the way a sport is funded or perceived: just look at Mary Kom—as a record five-time world champion, she was largely unknown in her own country. An Olympic bronze later, she was a household name, and the subject of a Bollywood big-ticket production.
The beginnings of a similar change can be traced in women’s boxing in India. Earlier restricted to very few pockets, women’s boxing started reaching a wider talent pool in 2008, when news spread that the discipline would be included in the 2012 Olympics (it was made official in 2009). The Bhiwani Boxing Club in Bhiwani, Haryana—famously called “Little Cuba” for producing a long line of Olympic boxers in the last decade, including Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and Vikas Krishan—opened its doors to women in 2008.
Savita has short-cropped hair, and Sakshi keeps her long hair tied in a tight plait; both have eyes that shine with a stubborn toughness that’s hard to describe but not hard to see.
“If such limited facilities can produce world champions, can you imagine how much better we can do with some support?” asks Jagdish Singh, who runs the Bhiwani Boxing Club.
It is not just that there is still little support for women’s boxing, despite the consistently world-beating performances. It is also that the big leap that women’s boxing was poised to take after Mary Kom’s 2012 Olympic medal never really happened.
“We expected a revolution,” says Anoop Kumar, coach of the senior women’s national team since 2001. “It was stopped the moment it began.”
Kumar is referring to the infighting, corruption and rigged elections that resulted in Aiba banning the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation in December 2012. The ban only made matters worse; for two years, the factional fights showed no signs of a resolution, and a federation-less Indian boxing went into forced exile. Without a national body governing the sport, boxers could not attend international tournaments as a team (though they could apply as individuals through a complicated and tortuous route). The sport could not get government funding, and private sponsors too held back their money. There were no national championships for two years. This year, with a new body recognized by Aiba, there was a national championship for seniors, but not for other age groups. Soon, the new body too was dissolved after the old fighting resurfaced. Now, a five-member ad hoc committee appointed by Aiba is in interim charge.
The Sher-e-Punjab academy and the Bhiwani Boxing Club are grass-roots schools, meant to provide an opportunity for children to get into sports and give them a basic grounding in technique and craft—“But then, once the basic stage is done, you need your boxers to go through a step-by-step system of learning and regular competition, according to their age and skill level, and that is just missing right now,” says D. Chandralal, one of the coaches of the senior women’s team, who has coached the junior and youth teams earlier.
The effect of this gap becomes immediately clear at international competitions: While the juniors, who can go a long way with natural talent and basic skills, finished with gold and silver at the world championships this year, the youth team at the same tournament finished without a medal. At the 2011 Junior/Youth World Championship, before the turmoil began, Indian girls got two golds each in the junior and youth categories. At the 2013 version, India went medal-less.
For the Junior Men’s World Championship in St Petersburg, Russia, in September, the ad hoc committee has called for an emergency selection trial. In the absence of a calendar of competitions and national championships for three years, little is known about the state of boxing at the junior level. The former chairman of Aiba’s women’s commission, Manisha Malhotra, now part of the ad hoc committee, says that there’s a lot of firefighting to be done. “This is a pre-Olympic year,” she says, “and our priority is to put into place a road map for Rio right now.”
Even when there was a working federation, Malhotra says, the structure for boxing’s development was not in place. “The administration had not exploited Mary’s popularity, her achievements; they had not tried to put a structure in place, nothing that would have helped girls improve in the sport year after year in an organized manner.”
It is no surprise for Mary Kom. She has been wading through the administrative mess of Indian sports, its chest-high muck of corruption, for years. “We were reaching for the top,” she says on the phone. “Now where are we?”
Coach Anoop’s answer to that: “There is no measuring how much we have lost in those three years of ruin, and it’s still going on.”
If a measure is needed, it was provided last year: In the senior world championships for men in 2014, Indian boxers failed to win a medal for the first time since 2009. At the junior world championships for men, there were no medals for India for the first time since 2006. The women continued to hold out hope—at the 2014 senior world championships in Jeju, South Korea, Sarjubala Devi and Saweety won a silver apiece. Both are tipped to be the next big things in Indian women’s boxing, along with Pooja Rani, who won a bronze at the 2014 Asian Games. They have spent most of the last three years in limbo, propped up only by the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI’s) decision to keep the senior core group in continuous training in New Delhi.
“In any fighting sport, it needs one week out of training, out of competition, for you to lose your accuracy and your confidence,” says Kom. “I worked and struggled for years. We begged and borrowed money, worked in fields, sold vegetables to buy train tickets to go for competitions. Now that we have shown the path, it was the job of the authorities to use that opportunity.”
Chandralal says that for every new hub like Chakar and Bhiwani, there are others that have been forced to shut shop in the last three years.
“If there is no competition, no funding, what will the girls do?” he asks. “Waste three years? They are switching over to track and field. Let’s count the number of SAI centres where women’s boxing has stopped in the last three years. Kollam in Kerala—no women’s boxing. Hissar in Haryana, our main source—there used to be 60-70 girls training there three years back, now there are 15. Kokrajhar in Assam, another big centre for us, same thing. Even in Imphal, Mary’s town, the numbers have dropped. You see, the whole system collapses without a federation—no competition means no certificates, no money, no jobs, no grace marks in school, nothing to show for your training.”
Meanwhile, training must go on. In Bhiwani, Sakshi and Savita skip rope, sweat flying off in silvery sprays from their faces. In Chakar, Mandeep leads a gang of little girls—none of them more than 3ft off the ground—into throwing shadow combinations. In New Delhi, at the senior national team’s camp, Anoop, Chandralal and the rest of the coaching staff drive the women to finish their back-breaking session. The hall trembles with a soundtrack unique to elite boxing training—the hard thwack of fist hitting heavy bag, the machine-gun smack of fast combinations being thrown at padded opponents, the squeak of feet skimming canvas, staccato guttural yells that add fuel to the punch—the many layers of sound coming together in a strangely musical whole. It is a music with an uncertain, damped down future.