~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, August 5th 2012

On Sunday afternoon, in East London, two things happened that had never happened before. Women boxed in the Olympics. And, a little less historically, we had an office outing to cheer on an Intelligent Life cover star: Mary Kom, boxer, mother, five-time world champion and habitual destroyer of stereotypes. As a woman, an Indian Christian and a native of Manipur—a neglected, disputed, impoverished region near the Myanmar border—Mary has won many battles outside the ring. The question was, after scraping through the qualifiers, could she win her first Olympic one inside it?

The boxing is unfolding at the Excel Arena, a venue that is like an airport, without the charm. The security is as stifling as expected, but redeemed by the smiling willingness of the volunteers. We were treated to an inspiring one-minute history of Olympic boxing; a brief, inaudible but admirable interview with a friendly local granny who had been a pioneering woman boxer; and a handy two-minute explanation of the rules, which was a bit like seeing "Hamlet" for the first time—you finally realised where phrases you use without thinking spring from—throwing in the towel, on the ropes.

Mary Kom’s Olympic debut was the third bout in the first competition, flyweight (48-51kg). Her habit of fighting against the odds has continued here, as her usual event, pinweight (up to 46kg), hasn’t been allowed into the Olympics yet. She was soon on the ropes, facing a Polish woman who was several inches taller, but even novices like the IL party could tell she wasn’t about to throw in the towel. Her blue shorts went down below her knees, but what she lacked in height she made up in other areas: speed, aggression, fire, and the support of the house, with Indians and Anglo-Indians joined by Britons of other colours (black, white, covered in Union Jack face-paint) with their ingrained sympathy for the underdog. The announcer hadn’t said Mary was a world champion, so to many spectators she was just a tiny braveheart. The top rope of the ring was redundant.

The judging is perplexing, all arcane arithmetic and, as one colleague said, a whiff of Eurovision. The first round was a draw, but a moral victory for Mary as her opponent defended drearily, like someone who comes for a meal and doesn’t say much. Mary edged ahead in the second round, and then pounced, landing several crisp punches and making the third round a rout. A chant of “Mair-ee Kom” rang round the arena. The fourth and last round was another draw, so she won comfortably, 19-14. This was billed as the round of 16, even though only 12 women are involved: four have byes, and now Mary is one of the four who join them in Monday’s quarter-finals. It’s a funny little tournament that will capture few headlines—except in India.

She was gracious in victory, trying to hug the Polish woman, who was having none of it. Mary bowed to all four sides of the crowd, saying her thank-yous. The Olympics throws up sudden allegiances: as a great cartoonist showed here, you can find yourself cheering on people you’ve only just heard of in sports you barely understand. If you know the person’s story, and it’s a good one, that allegiance is all the tighter. After spending five months, on and off, editing Rahul Bhattacharya’s outstanding profile of Mary, I felt I knew her reasonably well. We three editors sat in the stalls like parents at the nativity play, desperately wanting our girl to do well. And she did.

Mary Kom went on to win her quarter-final, but lost in the semis to Nicola Adams of Britain, who ended up as the gold medallist. Kom won a bronze, and the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar tweeted: "Mary Kom is an amazing woman...We are all extremely proud"

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life