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Mary Kom, the Indian boxer, during her semi-final defeat to Great Britain's Nicola Adams. Kom, who has won multiple world championship titles, was not considered a star in her country before the Olympics. Jack Guez / AFP
Mary Kom, the Indian boxer, during her semi-final defeat to Great Britain's Nicola Adams. Kom, who has won multiple world championship titles, was not considered a star in her country before the Olympics. Jack Guez / AFP

Olympics: Boxer Mary Kom has finally won India over

Before her bronze medal performance at London 2012, the multiple world champion was overshadowed by Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza.

A month ago, India's diminutive female boxer Mary Kom was just an occasional story on the sports pages. With an Olympic medal in hand, she has become the nation's newest sports star.

She has been winning world championships for years, but boxing has few fans in India, and many in the country cannot fathom the idea of a woman landing lethal left hooks. Only now, has "Magnificent Mary" seized the front pages.

Kom, the 29-year-old mother of five-year-old twin boys, was guaranteed at least a bronze medal with a victory on Monday and many were hoping she might bring back the first ever gold medal won by an Indian woman.

But she lost her 51kg semi-final bout to Britain's Nicola Adams at the Games yesterday.

Nevertheless, the recent outpouring of glowing support for Kom did not dim after her loss.

"Even though you have to settle for a bronze, Mary Kom you'll always be our Golden Girl. A true champion," tweeted Aakash Chopra, an Indian cricketer and sportscaster.

Despite an impressive five world championships, Kom has been outshone by athletes with fewer achievements who have received lucrative endorsement contracts.

The badminton player Saina Nehwal, who peaked at No 2 in the rankings and won a bronze medal last week at the Olympics, is hard to miss in newspapers and on television.

So is the tennis player Sania Mirza, who is ranked 256th in the world and got knocked out of the Olympic women's doubles in the first round. Kom has a job as a junior police officer, which pays her about 20,000 rupees (US$365) a month, and at least two endorsements, one of them a nutritional supplement.

But fighting back against relative sporting obscurity is hardly a challenge for Kom.

She is from Manipur, an insurgency troubled state in India's remote north-east. The eldest of four siblings, she worked as a child in the fields to help out her poor farming family.

In the early days as a boxer, she saved part of her food allowance to buy boxing gloves, she said in a recent interview.

She won four world titles in the 46kg category and one at 48kgs. But had to beef up for the 51kg category in London.

When she is not training or raising her sons Rengpa and Naimai, she trains young boxers at her academy outside Imphal, the capital of Manipur.

But Kom's moment of glory is here. "I have almost reached my destiny. My ultimate goal was to win a medal at the Olympics," she told news magazine Tehelka just before she flew out to London.

Now she even has Amitabh Bachchan, arguably India's most famous actor, tweeting her messages of congratulations.

"What a story!" said a part of his tweet on Monday when she won her bronze.

Saad Shervani, a New Delhi lawyer, cancelled an evening meeting to watch her box yesterday.

"It's a shame she hasn't got attention before. She's been around longer and winning longer than the other poster girls of Indian sports," he said.

In Imphal, the excitement was electric. "Her challenges have been quite hard always. She's where she is after having two children, playing in a higher weight category. We are very proud of her," said L Kailun Kom, a senior officer in Manipur's police force. The two are not related.

Large screens were put up in Imphal's city centre so everyone could watch the hometown boxer take her shot at Olympic glory. Many of her fans bought firecrackers, anticipating a celebration.

But the crowd of 200 supporters watching the bout at a sports centre in Imphal went away disappointed. "We were so looking forward to her winning that this has come as very sad news," said Ranjan Singh, a weightlifting coach. "She's won the bronze. We will have to settle for that."

After her fight yesterday, Kom, who was out of the ring for two years while she had her children, played down the relevance of women boxers appearing at the Olympics for the first time.

"If men can box, why can't women?" she said. "I've personally had to keep up the challenge of being told 'Mary is married, she has two children, how can she box?' I've always had to prove myself."

She said she was buoyed by messages of support on social media from all over India during her Olympic experience. "Everyone prayed for me, from every religion," she said. "My goal was a gold, and I fell short. But I'm still very happy to have done what I did."

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