Women punch through Olympics' last glass ceiling
Graceful and quick with glossy shoulder-length hair, the new face of Covergirl cosmetics is a world-class punching machine.
When she’s in the ring, you can’t see the eyes that earned 22-year-old Marlen Esparza of Houston, Texas, a place in a mascara advertisement. She keeps them safely behind her boxing gloves and never stays still long enough to come into focus.
Esparza earned the ad not on a catwalk but won it by beating Luu Thi Duyen of Vietnam 28-13 at the World Boxing Championships in Qinhuangdao, China, to become the first US woman to qualify for the Olympics in boxing.
“The Olympics means everything to me, and what I have worked for my entire life, so going to London and medalling will complete me as a person,” Esparza told dpa in an email interview.
For the first time, women will box in the Olympics, smashing the final sex barrier for the international sports competition. Only once before, in the 1904 Olympics, did women box, and then only as an exhibition sport.
Women’s boxing has gained popularity across the world in recent years, contributing significantly to the Olympic committee’s decision to add the sport. Overall, 23 countries across six continents will field female boxers in London.
“The sport is undoubtedly universal and is spread equally across the continents. It is also universal among socioeconomic groups since it is very accessible from a financial point of view,” an Olympic committee spokesperson told dpa.
Syria and Afghanistan held their first women’s boxing national championships in 2011. Sadaf Rahimi of Afghanistan qualified for the Olympics, but her invitation was withdrawn after she was knocked out in under a minute at a match in Beijing.
Esparza’s biggest competition in London comes from China: 24-year-old world champion Cancan Ren, who beat the American 16-8 in the World Boxing Championships in May.
The US team is composed of the flyweight Esparza, lightweight Quanita “Queen” Underwood and relatively unknown middleweight Claressa Shields.
A high school student, the 17-year-old Shields has drawn considerable interest as the youngest boxer in the entire competition. She is seen as a brawling “puncher” more than a technical boxer, throwing fewer but harder punches and less practised in finer points like footwork.
Like many female boxers, Esparza and Shields were introduced to the sport because their fathers wanted their brothers to box.
“I grew up watching boxing on TV with my dad when Julio Cesar Chavez was fighting and then started going to the gym when my dad used to take my brothers for boxing, but they didn’t like it,” Esparza said. “I wanted to try it, so one day at the gym I did, and I fell in love with the sport right away.”
Esparza, the top-ranked flyweight boxer in the United States for seven consecutive years, is part of a generation of women worldwide who are making their way in what has traditionally been considered a man’s sport.
Tickets are sold out to all the Olympic events in the three female weight classes, though at slightly lower prices than the men’s fights, and social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with talk about the newest medal sport.
“This is a very exciting time for women in the sport internationally and here in the states,” said Christy Halbert, a former boxer and chairwoman of the USA Boxing Women’s Task Force, in an interview with dpa. “Olympic inclusion has given credibility to women’s Olympic-style boxing.”
But credibility is not yet the same as complete acceptance.
Many of the tweets and Facebook posts circulating on the web are less than complimentary to female boxers, and, not surprisingly, some of boxing’s male icons say the sport is too violent for women.
“I have always said women should not fight. They shouldn’t do boxing,” said British boxer Amir Khan in a recent Facebook video.
"They should just stick to other sports because boxing is a very, very tough sport, you know, and just leave it to the men.”
Advocates such as Halbert, a leader in the charge to get women’s boxing into the Olympics, have been fighting for years against the notion that boxing is too violent for women.
For as long as she can remember, female boxers have struggled against unnecessary equipment requirements and rules imposed by the patriarchs of the sport in the name of protecting women’s bodies.
American female boxers were at one time required to wear clumsy chest protectors, which Halbert said injured boxers where the padding scraped against their sides and protected an area nobody tried to punch anyway.
“We were trying to dispel a prevailing myth about women’s bodies in general, not just boxers,” Halbert told dpa.
“A lot of people thought that damage to women’s breasts would prevent them from breast feeding or cause breast cancer. They were making a lot of assumptions about women’s intentionality as far as their bodies go.”
The rules assumed all women intended to have children and cared more about their physical beauty than the joy of boxing, Halbert said.
The 36 women who will box in London will wear the same protective equipment as men: padded head gear and boxing gloves.
The Olympic committee backed off a proposed rule requiring female boxers to wear skirts, deciding to make the skirts optional after several boxers complained. The committee said they created the rule because it was too hard to tell women and men apart in the ring if they both wore boxing shorts.
In 2009, shortly after the Olympic committee decided to elevate women’s boxing, the British Medical Association condemned the sport, saying the high profile event would encourage more people - men and women — to pick up boxing.
“Irrespective of their gender, during the course of a fight boxers can suffer acute brain haemorrhage and serious damage to their eyes, ears and nose,” an association spokesman said.
In an email to dpa, an Olympic committee spokesperson said they have no concerns that women are more susceptible to injury than male boxers.
“AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) provided us with all the records and health information they had gathered over the years regarding women’s boxing, and this information was carefully studied by our IOC Medical Commission. Please bear in mind that the women boxer’s, just like the men, will also be wearing protective helmets and heavy padded 12-ounce (336-gram) gloves,” the spokesperson told dpa.
Esparza, whose own career has been relatively free of gender criticism, said the rule requiring skirts was unnecessary, but an afterthought compared to the work she has put into reaching the Olympics.
“I think it should be everyone’s own decision ... if they want to wear one or not, and they shouldn’t be forced to wear a skirt if they don’t want to,” she said. “I’m not planning on wearing a skirt, but if we had to, I would be OK with it.”
Esparza’s incredible record, 69-2, the current longest winning streak in the US, was all the evidence she needed to quiet her critics.
“At first my family and friends didn’t understand why I loved it so much,” she said. “But after I started winning all the time they were like ’Oh, OK, I get it now.’ Women should be able to compete in every sport no matter what it is.”