India's school of hard knocks

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In the violent and impoverished state of Manipur, a leading female boxer is using her academy to offer teenagers hope for the future

The sun had barely begun to light up the backdrop of low hills and the thin cover of scrub, but in a park in north-east India a group of teenagers were already shadow-boxing with the sky.

It was not much of a park, really just a scruffy field, but it made little difference to their enthusiasm. Kitted out in red and black tracksuits, boys and girls alike, the young boxers were skipping, punching and dodging with rare focus and determination.

Soon they were all sweating. "We first played football in the village but now I like boxing," said one 14-year-old girl, Mary Na. "Now, I want to be like Mary Kom."

Mary Kom is a name these young people mention all the time. One of the world's most successful female boxers, Mrs Kom set up this academy in the state of Manipur several years ago with the simple wish of helping young people from this long-troubled region and giving them an opportunity they would otherwise not receive.

Initially funded with her own money but now with help from grants, the academy provides accommodation and coaching to around 15 youngsters. Most of them – like Mrs Kom herself – are from poor backgrounds. Those who are pay very little or else nothing at all.

"I want to be able to provide things for the children, provide them with the equipment," said Mrs Kom, who oversees coaching whenever she is in Manipur. "At the academy I try and provide a family background. I want to help out. That is why we have the gym and why we are taking on the children." Around the world, boxing has long been a source of potential salvation for those enduring hard-scrabble lives – from the East End of 1960s London to the barrios of Mexico City and the slums of the Philippines. For some – only a tiny number, of course – stepping into the ring has been a means to escape a life of drudgery and poverty.

Manipur, a state that has suffered from a bitter war between insurgents and government forces for decades, has produced several top-flight boxers. In 1998, bantamweight Dingko Singh captured gold at that year's Asian Games. Last year, teenager Thokchom Nanao Singh took gold at a world youth championship at Guadalajara in Mexico. Laishram Sarita Devi, a woman boxer from the Manipur village of Thoubal, has won seven gold medals in international tournaments.

"There is a long tradition of boxing in Manipur," said RK Sanatomba, sports editor of Hueiyen Lanpao, a newspaper based in the city of Imphal. "There is a martial tradition."

Yet even here Mrs Kom's achievements are exceptional. In addition to the bag of national titles she has collected, the 28-year-old has won the world championship five times, come runner-up once and won the Asian women's boxing championship on two occasions. She was part of the group that lobbied successfully for women's boxing to be included in the London Olympics of 2012, the first time it will feature in the games.

"Women's boxing has come on a tremendous amount in the last five years and it was time to include them," the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said at the time of last year's decision. If things go as the mother-of-two plans, then Mrs Kom will be representing India in the ring in London.

Yet it is not simply about winning medals. For all her success inside the boxing ring, Mrs Kom, twice honoured by the Indian government, is as important as a role-model for young people from the north-east of India, who often suffer discrimination from their "mainland" compatriots.

Far too often, the headlines about Manipur relate to violence, drug abuse, Aids or unemployment. Mary Kom and her story of overcoming the odds is something different.

The women of the state of Manipur, located on the border alongside Burma, have long enjoyed a reputation for defiance and stridency.

When the former independent kingdom was seized by the British in 1891, it was Manipuri women who led protests against the new imperial rulers. More recently women here have led campaigns against human rights abuses by the army, police and insurgents. One woman, Sharmila Irom, has been on hunger strike for 10 years in protest.

Though perhaps less dramatic, the story of Mrs Kom has also been that of a struggle. A member of a tribal community that has often been marginalised, she rose from a simple background and went to a Christian school before taking up boxing. Hard work, as much as raw talent, was her secret.

"She had a God-gifted talent but she was also very dedicated. She would always work twice as hard as anyone else," said her husband, Onler Kom, a retired professional footballer who now helps to run the academy. "This gym is like a lifeline because in Manipur there are only government jobs and not all the young people can get those government jobs. We want to uplift the young people."

Only a small number of the young boxers here, who all go to school every day after morning training, can hope to match the achievements of the founder of their academy. However, eight students from the academy have already won medals at the state level and two have participated in national competitions.

Naobi Timothy, a coach who once boxed at national level, said stamina, will-power and discipline were the most important attributes for anyone seeking success.

Explaining such dedication, Mrs Kom said: "I think that in Manipur there has always been a struggle, a lot of hard work. When we do things, we are not just doing them as a pastime. If we are doing something, everything, we do it seriously."

As such, it is little surprise that the young boxers at her academy strain to follow her example.

Sheila Sapna was in the park, sparring with another young woman, her hands protected by round, over-sized gloves. The 14-year-old came from what she described as a "remote village" and will be staying at the academy for a year. She said she was impressed that Mrs Kom had risen from a poor background to become "respectable".

"Women here can withstand anything," the teenager said. "Not just the physical stuff, but the mental stuff too."

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