Column: Kom, India's "big hero" at London Games

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Mary Kom has twin boys waiting at home in India, and she promised to bring them back something nice from the London Olympics. How about a medal? That's far better than the average toy or gift. Trouble is Kom has just the one.

So what will you do, Mary, cut it in two?

The question sent her into a fit of laughter. Were it not for the sweat on her brow, the tape unwrapped from her fists and scrunched into a tight ball in her right hand and the thick white towel around her neck, you wouldn't have guessed from her sunny demeanor and the fiery glint in her dark brown eyes that she has just boxed four bruising rounds.

''Oh my God!'' she exclaimed, thinking about the two boys/one medal dilemma. ''One medal I'll get in the market!''

As far as challenges go, Kom has overcome far worse. Like being a pioneering woman in a sport that until the London Games was the exclusive Olympic preserve of men.

Like having to persuade her father that women could box, too.

Like proving wrong those in her hometown near India's eastern border with Myanmar who said she'd have to stop boxing after she married.

And the murder of her father-in-law, who was reportedly shot in the head by suspected insurgents six years ago and was a sore loss for Kom because, she said, he was very supportive of her desire to box.

''If he's now ...'' - she looked up to the heavens - ''he will be very happy.''

It is because Kom has overcome these challenges and more that dozens of Indian journalists - the vast majority of them men - squeezed three rows deep beneath the Olympic boxing arena to speak to her after her bout on Wednesday and bask in her Olympic success.

One of them, a photographer, whipped out a small notepad and pen and asked for an autograph. Kom obliged. Another wanted to shake her hand. One asked for her telephone number. She obliged them, too.

More importantly, the media horde also wanted to know what message Kom had for India's hundreds of millions of women.

''Women can do everything, you know?'' she replied firmly. ''Just challenge. Keep challenge.''

There were two challenges, however, Kom could not overcome at these Olympics.

One was Nicola Adams, the British boxer who beat her handily in Wednesday's semifinals.

The other was the weight classes used for women in Olympic boxing.

Kom's five world championships from 2002-2010 came in either the 45, 46 or 48 kilogram (99, 101, 106 pound) categories.

But for its Olympic debut in London, women's boxing got just three weight classes (compared to 10 for the men). The lightest for the women is the 48-51 kilogram (106-112 pound) fly weight, and that forced Kom to bulk up to fight women bigger than her.

''Extra eating!'' said Kom, with another of her throaty laughs.

She also swallowed proteins and supplements to bulk up. Muralidharan Raja, secretary general of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, said there were times in the past when Kom also downed glasses of water to add weight.

''The weight is not in her, basically,'' Raja said.

Against Adams, it showed. The British boxer declared coming into these games that ''this is my time.'' The home crowd thought so, too, cheering her wildly. She proved too strong for Kom, pushing her around the ring and skipping back from her punches. She won every round, and the final score - 11 to 6 - was a fair gauge of Adams' superiority.

''Too much, this difference,'' said Kom.

Kom will be 33 when the Rio de Janeiro Olympics open in 2016. If a lighter weight class under 48 kilograms is introduced, might she be tempted?

''Let's see,'' she said. Then, with a growl, she added: ''I will be the champion!''

Making the semifinal earned Kom an Olympic bronze.

''I'm sorry that I could not come back with a big medal,'' she said. ''At least I'm coming back with a small medal.''

But, for India, one is tempted to say there's no such thing as a small Olympic medal.

In 23 Olympic appearances, including London, the nation of 1.2 billion people now has just 22 medals. Just three of those were won by women, all bronze. Karnam Malleswari got the first in weightlifting at the 2000 Sydney Games. Saina Nehwal won the second at these games, in badminton. Kom got the third.

''She's a big hero in India,'' said Raja.

He said the prospect of earning a good living from top-class sport - ''anybody who has made it to that level, they know they have made it for the next four or five generations'' - is attracting Indian kids. Middle-class Indians with spare time are also taking up sports ''in large numbers.''

''Maybe not Rio, but 2020, India will be in a big way there,'' Raja said. ''This is the beginning.''

After her bout, Kom's focus was far more immediate: to see by how much her 5-year-old twins, Rengpa and Naimai, have grown while she has been making boxing history in London.

''This much, this much, this much,'' she said, lifting her hand gradually upward.

''I don't know.''

But first, to the market, for that second medal.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

Tagged: Nicola Adams, Mary Kom

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