India’s Shot at Gold, Rahul Bhattachary profile of the boxer Mary Kom is a terrific introduction to one of the best stories in the the Olympics. My favorite section of Battacharya’s article:
FOOTAGE OF HER fights is not easy to track down. The national broadcaster Doordarshan, private sports channels, her own agents, Olympic Gold Quest – nobody can supply it. After a fortnight of hard pursuit, a solitary bout emerges on an unlabelled cd in the boxing federation office from a mass of discs in a paper bag. Another is found on Jimmy’s hard disk in Manipur. They are from Podolsk, Russia, 2005, and Barbados, 2010, both world championships.
The bouts are shot on single hand-held cameras with no commentary. They have the air of an underground activity, like 19th-century prizefighting.
But amateur boxing—or Olympic-style boxing, as it is beginning to be called—is a very different beast from prizefighting, then or now. There is no prize money, no pounding music or showboating mcs, no showbiz bright lights blazing around the ancient glamour of blood. Nobody dies in these bouts; knock-outs are rare.
Especially in the lighter categories, the boxers dance on the dazzling borderline between fisticuffs and fencing. They feint and prance and lunge to find openings off which to score. Scoring is a subjective and contentious affair: at least three of the five judges must instantly concur that a punch is substantial and delivered by the “knuckle part” of a “closed glove” to the legitimate target zone, between the stomach and the head, on the front or sides of the body. Without an electronic scoreboard, the audience would be lost.
Even by the standards of pinweights, Mary is so quick that judges regard her bouts as about the hardest task in the women’s game. At Podolsk, her opponent is a Korean (the difficulty level of this bout she recalls with the Indianism “fifty-fifty”). To watch Mary, 22 years old and 46kg light, is to watch the physical equivalent of a raconteur of irrepressible wit and repartee. It feels like pugilism.
In the breaks, the women’s coach Anoop Kumar rubs down her arms and legs. There is something wonderful in this unselfconscious athletic intimacy among countrymen who might be segregated by gender on public transport; in a country, indeed, where women boxers were initially asked, in the interests of modesty, to wear t-shirts under their vests.
As the clock ticks on in the contest, something raw cracks through the balletic Brownian motion. Grunts can be heard, the odd wild haymaker appears. There is something more existential at stake: boxing, where metaphor is meaningless because here it is what it is. Mary has never felt pain in a ring, or fear; those are areas she forbids her mind to go. What she does sometimes feel is the title of her favourite song, “Lonely”, by the Senegalese pop star Akon. Early in the last round, she throws a strong right off-balance to the head of the Korean, which forces her into a standing eight-count. The vulnerability in her opponent flares like a rage in Mary’s movements; she stalks her nervous prey around the ring, showing the killer instinct that figures in every appraisal of her. – Rahul Battacharya, “India’s Shot at Gold” in Intelligent Life (July/August, 2012)
You can get another great introduction to her here, in this BBC profile of the fighter: