Trial by (no) combat: Mary Kom wants direct quotas for proven performers

Mary Kom said that although she had sought an exemption from a trial, she did not strong-arm the federation to rule in her favour. David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Six-time world champion and Olympic medallist Mary Kom raked up controversy at a press conference on Wednesday by suggesting that proven performers should not be made to undergo selection trials. Mary Kom further asserted that she did no wrong by seeking an exemption from the trials for the World Championships.

"Maybe, the BFI (Boxing Federation of India) can change the programme altogether by having no trials for boxers who are performing well; they can directly get the quota for any championship or tournament," she told reporters on the sidelines of an event arranged by the All India Gaming Federation.

It was a statement that reignited debate that the Indian federation was hoping to bury quietly. It was only a couple of weeks ago that former junior world champion Nikhat Zareen protested after she was denied a chance to compete against the 36-year-old Member of Parliament Mary Kom in selection trials for the World Championships.

The BFI had originally announced a trial from August 6-8 and Zareen was expected to box Mary Kom on the final day. But on August 6, the BFI informed Zareen that her bout was postponed to August 7.

When the two boxers were preparing for their fight, a new notice from the BFI said that the trial in 51 kg was cancelled.

When quizzed on her decision to approach the BFI with a request for exemption, Mary Kom said she merely left it on the federation and did not strong-arm anyone to rule in her favour.

"I felt weird about my decision but I had told BFI clearly you decide who is doing better. If I have to give a trial or not is not in my hands. The BFI decides all these things, it's up to them" she said.

Interestingly, Mary Kom did not think there was anything distasteful in her choice to skip trials that other boxers have to go through. Instead, she drew an analogy with Indian badminton.

"You look at other games like badminton, who gives trials? Did Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu give any trial?" she said.

It wasn't exactly the best of comparisons. In fact, Saina and Sindhu both qualified for the World Championships, currently underway in Basel, based on their world rankings. They have also had a more consistent period of performance with Saina playing eight tournaments this year and Sindhu nine.

Mary Kom, on the other hand, was chosen by the BFI selection panel based on her gold medal-winning performances at the India Open - in which she had beaten Zareen in the semifinal - and a subsequent minor tournament in Indonesia.

In contrast to Mary Kom's assertation, trials are conducted in nearly every sport in which world rankings are not of a qualitative standard. Two-time World medalist Bajrang Punia, who has lost all of one competitive match this year, gave trials in the men's 65kg category - despite the result being a foregone conclusion -- in order to earn the right to represent India at the 2019 Wrestling World Championships. Seniority also didn't enable two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar to shy away from trials in the 74kg freestyle wrestling category.

Indeed, Mary Kom herself has given boxing trials in past years. Back in 2014, with her Olympic bronze still in recent memory, she competed (and lost to Pinky Jangra) in the selection trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

There is, however, a partial argument to be made in Mary Kom's favour. There was a fear during Bajrang's trials that he might be injured by a particularly rough opponent - a prediction that didn't come to pass.

Injuries have happened in the past though. The 2014 boxing selection trials that Mary Kom competed in saw Asian Games and (future) Commonwealth Games gold medalist Vikas Krishan suffer a nasty cut that ruled him out of the trials and by extension, the competition he was meant to be preparing for as well.

Devendro Singh, who was expected to be a certain bet at the 2013 Worlds, had to be dropped from the squad after suffering a gash above his eye that would not heal in time for the tournament. Cuts are relatively frequent in boxing, but stitches usually take several weeks to heal up and the affected area is prone to tearing easily. However, this is an issue that was solved relatively comprehensively with the introduction of head guards during trials.

In Mary Kom's case, as with women's boxing in general, head guards are anyway a standard feature in trials and competitions. As such, Mary Kom's arguments in favour of the recent decision of the BFI hold little merit.