The question was scripted but the ‘planned entry’, which followed made an impact, like it often happens in WWE. This, however, was an event related to a marathon.
Mary Kom, the ambassador of the Mumbai Marathon this year sits on the dais, talking about her achievements and goals. Then came the question, which was pre-planned. Do you remember the person who inspired you to take up boxing after he won the Asian Games gold in 1998?
Mary knew the answer, and she was promptly asked if she’d like to meet that person. That was the cue.
From the other end of the room, the door opened, and out-walked Dingko Singh, a calm smile on his face.
The last time the 40-year-old had made the news was in early 2017, when news broke that he had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. He would have to sell his house as the medical bills mounted.
Yet here was the 1998 Asiad gold medallist, two years later, seated beside the person he inspired to win six World Championship titles and an Olympic bronze.
“I have had two births in this life,” Dingko says, still smiling. “A lot has changed in my life. A lot of people were thinking about what will happen to me. I was in a dire situation but I fought that and I am back on my feet. I am completely clear (of cancer) and have stopped my medication also. I just have to go for half-yearly check-ups now.”
Dressed casually in an ensemble of a red t-shirt and dark jeans, he wears a weary smile. It’s a stark contrast to the way he beamed while posing for photographs, at a boxing hall in Bangkok, 21 years ago.
At the 1998 Asian Games, the then 19-year-old Dingko upset world no.3 Timur Tulayakov of Uzbekistan to win India’s first gold medal in boxing at the Asiad since 1982. That all seems to have taken place in a previous life for him – “the earlier Dingko Singh,” he calls it.
His new life, post the recovery, has been all about grooming a new generation of talent from his state, Manipur.
“I train around 100 kids at Imphal now, 25 of those are girls,” he says. “I look after the basics, then they are transferred to other places for further coaching.”
Lack of financial support
The biggest problem for Indian boxing though, he asserts, is the lack of financial support seeping into the lower rungs of the boxing ladder. There is no support for upcoming players who haven’t been scouted by private sponsors or even the government-backed TOPS program.
“What happens in India is that players that get into boxing come from poor families with no stable income,” he says. “So when they do get some prize money, they use it to look after the family and don’t get much to put into their own training. Gloves come for Rs 5,000 and can last for a few years, but there’s a lot you have to focus on in terms of your diet. That can be expensive. If such a problem didn’t exist,” he adds, “Indian boxers would consistently be among the top 10 in the world.”
Dingko is well aware of the struggle. He grew up in an orphanage in Manipur until his boxing prowess caught the attention of scouts and he was later recruited by the Indian Navy. His first international event was in Bangkok in 1997, where he won gold. He’d win a medal of the same colour in the Thai capital a year later, at a more prestigious event.
He’s settled down now in his new life, in a new home, but remains in contact with the sport. It was his achievement that inspired the rise of Mary Kom. And now he’s working towards providing a start for another wave of Indian boxers.