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Mary Kom alleges racism, but do Northeast Indian sportspersons really get a raw deal?

Bhargab Sarmah | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:58 IST

Five-time amateur boxing world champion M C Mary Kom launched a scathing attack at Indian referees and judges at a media event in Mumbai on 23 September, accusing officials of discriminating against her on the basis of her race.

"Sometimes I feel very upset. Some of the referees and judges do not favour me but I don't mind. Okay, I am from the Northeast, no problem, but I am still an Indian," she said.

Mary Kom seemed particularly upset about the fact that Haryana-based boxer Pinky Jangra had been selected ahead of her for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Jangra had beaten Mary Kom at the Commonwealth Games trials in 2014, and had deservedly booked a place at the Glasgow Games.

"There are so many controversies. Pinky Jangra... I always defeat her and prove it to get a gold medal in every competition (sic), but they (boxing selectors) continue to support her. It is still okay. I will prove myself in the ring," she explained.

The Manipuri boxer had expressed her unhappiness after losing the 2014 bout to Jangra, stating the judges had been biased towards the latter. However, before reading too much into Mary Kom's accusation, it is important to note her history with Pinky Jangra.

The shock defeat at the Nationals

In 2008, M C Mary Kom lifted her fourth world title in the 46 kg category. She was the country's finest boxer at the time, and it looked like the National women's boxing championship in Haryana a year later would be a cakewalk for her. In the quarterfinals, a young Pinky Jangra came up against MC Mary Kom.

It should have been an easy route to the semis for Mary Kom, but Pinky Jangra unexpectedly put up a fight. As the bout progressed, the young boxer's fast game stunned Mary, who looked slow and short of ideas.

Mary Kom did manage to avoid a defeat, but the two boxers ended up tied at 9-9 after the four rounds. As is the rule, the judges were asked to post their individual scores, and even after the submission of scores, the two boxers remained tied at 15-15.

The only way a winner could be declared now was for the five judges to declare the individual winners. Four of the five judges, quite unsurprisingly, declared Jangra as the winner, with the youngster having looked like the fitter, faster and more combative of the two fighters over the course of the fight.

Mary Kom, however, did not take the decision well, and unleashed a barrage of abuse at the four judges. She alleged that the judges had favoured the home boxer, conveniently forgetting the fact that she had trailed her opponent for three of the four rounds.

History repeats itself in 2014

Five years later, Mary Kom once again faced Jangra, this time in the trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Once again, Jangra prevailed in a very close contest, in a similar fashion from five years earlier, with judges making a split decision in the end.

In fact, the 2014 bout had been much closer than the one from 2009. Both boxers looked toe-to-toe with each other, and the referees eventually took 10 minutes to decide on the winner. However, Mary Kom, who looked drained towards the end, once again didn't take the decision well, and even filed a complaint against the officials initially.

One year later, it looks like Mary Kom continues to hold a grudge against Pinky Jangra for her two defeats. While it remains within her rights to question the decision of the judges, it seems a bit bizarre to suggest that officials on both occasions had been motivated by a regional bias. In fact, journalists present on both the encounters (2009 and 2014), had agreed that Jangra had been a better fighter on the day.

No evidence to suggest Northeast Indian sportspersons face discrimination

There is no denying that most sports administrative bodies in India are run by people with little or no connection to sports. Politicians and self-styled babus have brought in a highly unprofessional style of functioning into these bodies.

However, Mary Kom's comments on Wednesday couldn't be more off the mark. Why is it that Devendro Singh, Shiva Thapa and Sarita Devi, all from the Seven Sisters, are yet to face the sort of discrimination that Mary Kom alleges to have faced because of her Northeast identity?

How is it possible for Boxing India (BI) (now suspended) to have a president from the Northeast (Nagaland's Meren Paul) if there indeed exists any kind of racial discrimination in the sport? In fact, before it was suspended in 2012, the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) had six office-bearers from the Northeast.

In quite a few sports, sportspersons from the region have gone on to become some of the finest in the country. In football itself, Manipur has dominated the domestic scene over the years. It is quite surprising that none of them have made similar accusations before.

In hindsight, it seems convenient for Mary Kom to play the victim's card, but there is hardly any evidence to suggest that she (or any other sportsperson from the Northeast for that matter) has been treated unfairly by officials because of her identity. For someone of her stature, it is rather unfortunate that Mary Kom has used her identity to push a personal agenda against Pinky Jangra.

First published: 25 September 2015, 4:24 IST
Bhargab Sarmah @BhargabSarmah

An avid fan of the beautiful game since his childhood, Bhargab has been writing about football in India for the last three years. He supports I-League club Shillong Lajong, as well as English giants Manchester United. Having recently graduated with a degree in commerce, he now writes about football and other sports at Catch.