The Indian boxer Mangte Chungneijang Merykom has won the world women’s boxing title in her weight class an unprecedented five times. She has won, in fact, every prize in the sport, most more than once. All except an Olympic medal.
With women’s boxing debuting as an Olympic sport this year, Ms. Merykom is determined to cap her career with that one, too. She fights with a ferocity and intentness of purpose that is rare even among Olympic-level athletes, boxing experts say, and she may be India’s single best hope for a gold medal in London.
But until late last year, Ms. Merykom was assigned to a crumbling, scorching-hot training camp in Bhopal, fed a diet she can best describe as “unhygienic,” and had no set training plan or partner. She and her family spent much of the year before that foraging in a forest for firewood to cook with when her home area in northeast India was under a political blockade.
It is not, she notes, the stuff of which Olympic glory is made. “I had to get here by myself,” she said simply as she counts down the days to her last and most important fight.
Ms. Merykom’s story may sound extreme, but many of India’s other top amateur athletes have similar tales of woe.
“If you listed national priorities from one to 10, sport would come at 11,” Viren Rasquinha, a former Indian Olympic field hockey captain, said wearily.
India loves its cricket – which is not an Olympic sport – but its amateur athletes train and compete in obscurity. India, population 1.2 billion and a global economic powerhouse, has a total haul of 20 Olympic medals since 1900. From 1956 to 1992 India did not win a single individual medal. The Beijing Olympics were considered a breakthrough: India won three medals.
By way of comparison, New Zealand, population 4.4 million, has won 86 medals at the Summer Games since 1920.
But this, India’s lonely sporting enthusiasts say, could be the year. “It’s a watershed moment in history of Indian Olympic sport,” said sports historian Boria Majumdar. “We are at the cusp of a possible breakthrough. Sport might become reasonably important in the national imagination.”
Seventy-six athletes have so far qualified for London, and a handful more may make it. This reflects a new commitment by government in the wake of the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010, when the government put $1.8-million into athlete support and India finished an unprecedented second in the medal standings.
At the same time a handful of organizations such as Olympic Gold Quest, which was created by former Olympians such as Mr. Rasquinha, who runs it, threw their backing behind the most promising competitors, bringing in foreign coaches, physiotherapists, psychologists and nutritionists.
Olympic Gold Quest raised $550,000 from charitable foundations last year to support 32 athletes. They hope to take on 100 in time for the Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and are starting a junior camp. Ms. Merykom, the boxer, is one of the athletes the private group is helping. After she was stuck in the decrepit gym in Bhopal for much of last year, Olympic Gold Quest intervened on her behalf and she went to a new training facility in the Punjab, where India’s male boxers train. She now has British coach, a nutritionist-designed diet and male sparring partners.
“As India is developing more and more, sporting glory is something that eludes us – it’s a shame, really,” said Mr. Rasquinha, adding: “We’re 10 years behind the rest of the world in our training methods, training systems.”
It was not always so. India’s first team outing to the Olympics was in 1928, when its men’s field hockey team won gold. India won the next two field hockey gold medals, and then in 1948, one year after the British had been ousted as the colonial rulers, India beat the British men for the field hockey gold in the Games (also held in London). It was a pivotal moment in the country’s modern history. The near-lock on the gold lasted until 1964.
But other than field hockey? “Disastrous,” as Mr. Rasquinha put it. “It’s not that the talent is not there – there is genuine raw talent. But it’s about us harnessing it. There is so much apathy.”
India’s amateur sporting world is overseen by government bodies stuffed with lifelong bureaucrats and headed by political appointees. The president, vice-president, and senior staff of the Indian Olympic Association all refused repeated interview requests from The Globe; the president was reported by his staff to have turned up for work on one day of the 21 that The Globe called.
While the Delhi Commonwealth Games were a sporting triumph for India, they are better known at home and abroad for what Mr. Majumdar calls the “corruption and sordid tales” behind their management – millions of dollars were allegedly siphoned out of the construction and operations budget by senior officials, some of whom are still awaiting trial – and the sporting authority has not regrouped.
Then there is the cricket issue. Cricket is today to India what hockey is to Canada, the lifeblood sport, but it was not always so, said Mr. Majumdar, who wrote the definitive national sporting history, Olympics: the India Story.
It was once field hockey that held that revered spot. But just at the moment in the late 1960s that India’s field hockey fortunes began to decline, cricket was ascendant: India beat the West Indies and England in 1971.
In 1983 India won the cricket World Cup just as television began to be popularized here. “All through the 1980s cricket was on a high – so when the Indian economy opened up in 1991 corporate sponsors started investing in cricket rather than other sports and cricketers became the poster boys of Indian sport.”
Cricket has not been an Olympic sport since the early 1900s. Many countries would like it reinstated but England and India – both of which have lucrative private leagues – are blocking the move. In India, the $4-billion cricket industry is controlled by an autonomous body that has no intention of being brought under the government’s sporting authority, Mr. Majumdar said, and no one in the sporting world blames it.
Ms. Merykom said in a phone interview from Manipur that her struggles began to ease when women’s boxing was made an Olympic sport, and the government realized her medal potential. If she wins, she said, it could dramatically change the landscape, especially for young female athletes.
“I hope, I hope, I hope, after the Olympics if I’m getting a medal – men and women will be getting equal treatment, and athletes will get a lot of publicity and sponsors, and it will be good for youngsters,” she said. “It will be a big change.”
INDIA’S ATHLETES TO WATCH
India has greater depth in sports – such as wrestling, boxing and badminton – with low barriers to entry than it does in sports sought out by young people from wealthier backgrounds, such as swimming. The exception is shooting, a favourite sport of the elite. There are 100 shooters at the government training camp this year.
Saina Nehwal, women’s badminton singles, seeded fifth in the world and her game has only improved since she narrowly missed the medal round in Beijing – but she’s up against the fierce Chinese badminton machine.
Deepika Kumari, archery. She won two golds at the Commonwealth Games, and though only 18, she’s considered one of the best shots at a medal in London. Her father is a rickshaw driver, her mother a nurse in a government hospital; her hard-luck-to-success story in a usually patrician sport makes her a national sweetheart.
Ronjan Sodhi, double-trap shooter, seeded second in the world, trains in Italy because India’s facilities are so poor, he says; postponed a business career to join the global shooting circuit.
Virdhawal Khade, swimmer, at age 16 set an Indian record in 100-metre freestyle at Beijing but did not qualify for the semifinals; in 2010 he won India’s first swimming medal in 24 years at the Asian Games.