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Olympic bell beckons for women's boxing

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Matt Slater | 17:33 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

Frankie Dunn, Clint Eastwood's character in Million Dollar Baby, has a quick answer every time Hilary Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald asks him to train her to box: "I don't train girls."

This dismissal is delivered in a 60-a-day growl that does nothing to hide his distaste for the idea of women's boxing.

For five minutes last week I felt something similar myself.

I had just walked into the Amateur Boxing Association of England's (ABAE) 2009 Women's Championships and two young fighters were in the ring, slugging it out, in front of a vociferous crowd.

I sat close to the action and watched, and winced, as these two threw flurries of punches at each other.

One boxer was clearly more experienced than the other and while she punched in straight lines, her smaller opponent punched in wide arcs. The latter was probably the better athlete but her geometry was a disaster.

In truth, it wasn't a great fight and that troubled me for a few reasons.

I had to come to the Boxing Manchester Centre of Excellence to see if women's boxing was ready for inclusion in the Olympics, if it was "developed" enough to warrant such status.

Mediocre boxing, whatever the gender, isn't pretty, but this was a bout for a national title - it should have been better.

The issue of quality, and how far down it goes, is essential to female boxing's case. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) looked at it in 2005 and decided the strength in depth - what it calls a sport's "universality" - wasn't there.

Irish world champion Katie Taylor (right) would be a strong contender for gold in 2012 if women's boxing is approved

But the latest smoke signals from Lausanne suggest the IOC believes those concerns over easy medals and/or dangerous mismatches no longer exist.

In a remarkably unguarded interview, IOC boss Jacques Rogge effectively sounded the bell for the first Olympic women's boxing competition.

"Conditions are totally different now. The timing is right, because the sport has evolved a lot," said Rogge last month.

But during those first few minutes in Manchester I had my doubts.

There was nothing wrong with the boxers' fitness or footwork but they were ragged in defence. And every time they took a punch they went to pieces: a sure sign of a novice.

Having admired the textbook techniques of female athletes in almost every sport under the sun, I was surprised to see pugilism's defensive skills, the sport's basics, so unevenly displayed.

But - and it's a big but - as the contest came to its conclusion, my misgivings were receding, and when the bell rang for the final time the boxers embraced with broad smiles across their unmarked faces.

I was getting over the shock of seeing women hitting each other and was starting to realise women's boxing is different to men's boxing in the same way women's tennis is different to men's tennis. Not worse, just different.

The next bout, a much closer affair between two boxers with sound techniques, reinforced my growing belief that I was watching potential Olympians. And by the time Natasha Jonas took on Alana Murphy for the 64kg title, I was convinced.

The final score was 17-1 to the 24-year-old Jonas, which suggests Murphy was humiliated. She wasn't. She was just given a lesson by an opponent a few fractions of a second quicker...but then fractions of a second are eternities in elite sport.

Jonas' next contest will be at the EU Championships in Bulgaria later this month, and having won two silver medals at the event already the Scouser is tipped to strike gold this time.

But whatever she achieves over the next three years it will pale in comparison to what she may accomplish in London. If women's boxing gets the nod from the IOC, Jonas can be a Team GB star in 2012. Remember the name.

That announcement is expected on 13 August at a meeting of the IOC's executive board in Berlin, although it is rumoured the call will be made a couple of weeks before. My guess is that it will be a hard decision to keep quiet so we may hear something sooner than the 13th.

What is more certain is that the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the sport's international governing body, has presented a compelling case.

Mindful of IOC concerns about the size of the Games, the AIBA has proposed giving up one of the 11 men's weight categories - the light flyweight class - to make room for five women's divisions of eight boxers each.

There were 286 boxers in Beijing but the AIBA is confident this number will not be exceeded in London even with the addition of 40 women. Expect tougher qualification criteria for the more popular men's divisions.

The other potential deal-breaker for the IOC was the overall medal count and the prospect of dishing out bronze medals to female boxers who win their first fight but then lose their second.

Boxing - like judo, taekwondo and wrestling - dishes out bronze medals to both beaten semi-finalists. This means 44 medals were awarded in Beijing, a number that would rise to 60 if five women's events are added to 10 men's events.

The AIBA has hinted it would bring in a third v fourth bout to keep the tally to 45 but it is no longer certain the IOC will insist upon this. The fact boxing's bosses were willing to put the extra bronze medal on the table was perhaps all the IOC needed to hear.

IOC president Jacques Rogge (a trained surgeon) wants to add women's boxing to the Olympic programme

Rogge's feelings on the matter seem clear and women's boxing has already received public backing from Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and private support from the organisers of the London Games.

As the only sport in the summer programme not to have a women's competition - and the IOC under pressure to address the unequal number of medals available to men and women - there is seemingly unstoppable momentum behind women's boxing.

I say seemingly because there is, of course, one enormous grey thing, with big floppy ears and a long trunk, clomping around the room and it's the same thick-skinned beast that came to the fore in Million Dollar Baby.

In that film - and it is just a film - Frankie's initial fears about women's boxing are proved correct when Maggie is left on life support after a particularly brutal (and ridiculously officiated) bout.

But acknowledging the elephant in the room is one thing, letting it knock the house down is another.

Amateur/Olympic boxing and its professional big brother are almost different sports. The head guards and heavy gloves the amateurs wear not only reduce the potential for harm, they also dictate different tactics - some pros dismiss amateur boxing as "fencing with gloves".

Points win prizes in the amateur game and those points are scored by punches to the head or midriff, not the chest, so scare stories about breast injuries for female boxers appear unfounded.

As do the more general scare stories about non-professional boxing. There has been plenty of research on the dangers of repeated blows to the head in professional boxing but it is very hard to find much of a case against amateur boxing (something Rogge, a surgeon by trade, will know well).

It is also difficult to maintain the line that boxing is inherently "unladylike". With the number of fighters seeking entry to the English championships up on last year by 50%, it seems ladies are making their own judgements about what is and what isn't behaviour befitting a lady these days.

I've already written that I thought women's boxing would get the nod for 2012. But it was just a guess then, based more on a suspicion that Olympic bosses would need a bargaining chip to get boxing to agree to a move from the Olympic Park to Wembley.

But having seen women box I can now say with certainty that the very best of them deserve to take their place alongside the very best cyclists, rowers and sailors.

After all, if judo, taekwondo, wrestling and, dare I say, dangerous sports like three-day eventing are OK, why not boxing?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "I can now say with certainty that the very best of them deserve to take their place alongside the very best cyclists, rowers and sailors." Is that comment supposed to be funny? Rowers and sailors are just posh idiots messing about - how dare you insult boxers by putting them on the same level as the Henley mob!

  • Comment number 2.

    Cyclists aren't posh, though, are they?

    And to be fair, not all rowers and sailors are either....not that there's anything wrong with being a bit posh. Far from it. Team GB would be on the ropes without "the Henley mob" - they win all our medals...which is kind of why I mentioned those sports.

    Thanks for commenting, though, I was starting to get worried about the dreaded bagel there. A horrible prospect for bloggers.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ahh. My dad was both a boxer and a sailor in his time :) Where would he fit in?

  • Comment number 4.

    At 1:22pm 12 Jun 2009,(no. 71) you used the word "sooo", I think that might be why you're getting the cold shoulder on this blog.
    Sorry cuz.

  • Comment number 5.

    Wrong blog, cuz. Sooooooo please keep up. I intend to use a lot more E4-influenced yoof speak in my next blog.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Matt

    Good article, but one point you represented inaccruately. Amateurs wear 10oz gloves in the ring...these are not "heavy"!

    In fact I think pros wear the same. In at least one category of the female ABAs that I know of this year, it went to a straight final. That doesn't indicate domestic strength in depth. I hope the IOC stick to the weight classes where there is the necessary standard of experience and technical skill to make the debut for this sport (which I think is deserved) a spectacle worthy of tv coverage. Esp as, like you say, it will probably make already very tough european men's qualifying even tougher due to fewer places on offer.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Southcoastsouthpaw,

    Thanks for reading and for putting me straight on the gloves issue. For some reason I thought the amateurs wore slightly heavier gloves with more padding than the gloves the pros wear. But having checked it seems the only difference is the white band on the gloves which helps the refs spot legal scoring punches.

    You make a good point about the weights categories they choose for the women's boxing event. I'm at home today so don't have my notes in front of me but I think the weights start at 47 or 49kg and go up to 75. One thing I do remember, though, is that the middleweight equivalent category will be at 60kg, which means Natasha Jones will need to drop down from her current 64kg division. Tough on her and Britain as that 64kg category seems to be the most competitive division we have.

    Oh, and as a bonus to all those still reading, I've got a couple more Olympic boxing snippets for you.

    The first is that the latest word on where the 2012 boxing event will be held is that the Albert Hall is a non-starter so Olympia in W Kensington(makes sense really) is the new compromise choice. Apparently the glass roof is a security headache but it can be sorted. The weigh-ins will probably be at the Gorsebrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham.

    And the second tidbit is something for your diary, fight fans: GB v USA (men's and women's Olympic boxers if the IOC does the right thing) for the Atlantic Cup on 13 November at a fancy London hotel.

  • Comment number 8.

    If womens boxing is allowed at the Olympics then they will have to allow mens synchronise swimming and mens rythmic gymnastics. There is no reason why men are barred from these sports because they are just as capable in performing the routines women can and there is a depth of quality.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Matt

    Interesting to read about the new developments in womens boxing. With pro boxing and particularly womens mma becoming very popular in America it appears that it is not just men who like to fight. I believe there is a hugh female mma fight schedualed in the US that will rival the pay per view numbers of the top mens fights.

    There are two points I would like to raise on your blog:

    "Having admired the textbook techniques of female athletes in almost every sport under the sun, I was surprised to see pugilism's defensive skills, the sport's basics, so unevenly displayed."

    Maybe it's just me but this comes across as a little patronising. I think the point is made a little clumsily and gives the wrong impression, this could have easily been avoided. Am I being patronising?


    "Amateur/Olympic boxing and its professional big brother are almost different sports. The head guards and heavy gloves the amateurs wear not only reduce the potential for harm, they also dictate different tactics -some pros dismiss amateur boxing as "fencing with gloves"."

    I see this has already been raised but a point to note is that the amatuer gloves have more padding than the pro gloves in the contact area of the glove. Pro gloves are actually much stiffer and harder in the contact area and for this reason, along with longer fights and aggression being rewarded, it is no surprise that there are more knockouts it pro boxing.

    If you are following female boxing you may of seen Ireland's Katie Taylor. Taylor is a amatuer and is a two time world champion and 3 time European champion. She has won best boxer at some of these tournaments and I have heard it suggested that she is pound for pound the best female amatuer boxer in the world. What I hear on the ground is that she can easily hold her own with men in her boxing club.

    Katie comes across as a very well rounded young woman. In addition to boxing Katie also plays football for Ireland as a full senior international.


  • Comment number 10.

    After all that I've just copped on that Katie is in the photo above fighting for Ireland in the blue top.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi hizento,

    I'm glad somebody brought up the synchro swimming and rhythmic gymnastics point.

    Yes, you're right, if boxing's days as the last men-only sport on the summer programme are numbered (and hopefully ski jumping goes the same way in the Winter Games) I wonder how long it will take for people to start talking about the women-only events.

    I think there are two key points to make here as to why the synchro/rhythmic situation is different to boxing/ski jumping:

    1) Are there hundreds/thousands of male synchro swimmers/rhythmic gymnasts banging on the IOC's door demanding entry? Do many men actually want to do these sports or is this just more of a hypothetical issue?

    2) Are synchro swimming and rhythmic gymnastics sports at all? If yes, are they sports worthy of Olympic inclusion (particularly now that the need to increase numbers and medal opportunities for women at the Olympics is being addressed in the more traditional mixed sports)?

    For me the answer to both these main questions is no. There isn't a large group of potential Olympians playing these sports who currently kept out of the Games by sexist laws. I'm sure they exist, but I have never met a male rhythmic gymnast or synchro swimmer.

    And while I don't want to get into a massive debate on whether these two pastimes are sports or not, I don't think they're Olympic sports. I don't believe they are played widely and deeply enough around the world, they are judged on subjectively, they hardly pack them in terms of ticket sales or bums on sofas back at home and I just don't see the justification for gender-specific sports in the 21st century Olympics.

    Strongback, thanks for providing more clarity on the gloves issue. You've confirmed what I've always thought I knew about the amateurs' gloves being more padded than the pros'. My error was that I thought they weighed more too.

    I disagree with your comment about me being patronising, though. That said, you don't say who I'm being patronising to (the two boxers? all female boxers? female athletes?) so I'm not entirely certain I've understood your point. The point I was trying to make (I agree, a little clumsily) is that sportswomen, particulary at the elite end, usually have very sound techniques. I'm particularly thinking about female swimmers, golfers, tennis players, skiers, track & field stars and so on. In those sports it is the ones with "bad techniques" that stick out.

    So when I saw these two women fighting for an English championship I was a little bit surprised to see how poor they were defensively. Hands too low, big gap between the gloves, chin up, limited ability to slip a punch etc.

    Is it patronising to say this? Maybe, but then it's only my opinion and giving/sharing that is kind of my job...particularly on these pages. If I wrote that Anderson, Park, Carrick and Giggs were made to look like park footballers by Barcelona in Rome would that be patronising?

    As for Katie Taylor, yep, she's very much on our radar here. We've had her on 5 Live a couple of times and she's a great ambassador for her sport. In fact, Rogge's comments about women's boxing were made when he visited Ireland recently and I'm sure it is because of Taylor that the question was posed by the Irish Times journalist. I had to use a picture of her in the blog as she's the most famous female amateur boxer our picture agency had a pic of....I would love to have used our video footage of Natasha Jones, Lucy O'Connor and other English fighters but we're saving that for another time!

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi Matt

    "The point I was trying to make (I agree, a little clumsily) is that sportswomen, particulary at the elite end, usually have very sound techniques"

    Also I could have explained my point more clearly. Ultimately I think it was not necessary to make the point that elite sports women have great technique and skill as I think this is taken for granted. When I watch Wimbledon over the next couple of weeks it will not cross my mind when I look at the Williams and Sharapova that they are not as skilled as men. Making a generalisd point that women have great technique is something I do not think would be written about men.

    I feel it is enough to say there were some poor contests and the boxing technique of some fighter was of a poor standard. To back this up you have explained in the article that the female sport is still building up the number of competitors and some of the fighters getting to the latter stage of a national tournament could be more experienced.

    I think we are discussing a very minor point and I am the one who is guilty of bring it up.

    I am going to stop now as I am starting to sound like a feminist crusader, my Mum would be proud. BTW I am a man.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think it is sexist to maintain separate competition classes for woman and men.

    If, as has been implied here, women can be equally talented boxers, and boxing is already divided into weight categories to prevent mismatches, then women and men should compete against each other in the same tournaments, at the same weights.

    End sex discrimination in sport NOW.

  • Comment number 14.


    To The hand of Hidden Forces

    Ahhh well done...Goood chap.

    Pound for pound elite sportsmen are stronger and faster than elite sportswomen. I don't think there would be too many arguments about this. The discussion was about skill and technique and there is no reason why men and women cannot be equal in this regard.

    in terms of your call to eliminate sex discrimination in sport I am sure a good female boxer would have no problem punching your head in.

  • Comment number 15.

    I am a female British Boxer living and working in Tokyo, Japan. I am lucky to have a really supportive gym that doesn't treat me different just because I am a woman. I train with the guys, the same as the guys and in practice I even spar with the guys. I don't see what the problem is with female boxing. As female pro boxing is legal in Japan as of last year, I am currently considering whether or not to turn pro. My gym owner wants me to but I am holding off until they make a decision about the Olympics. I don't see any reason why there shouldn't be female boxing at the Olympics. Moreover, I think that if boxing is an Olympic sport, which it is. Then rather debating whether women or not should also compete, I think the real question is whether women have the right to compete...the obvious answer to this question is yes and thus womens boxing should be allowed at the next Olympics. Moreover wouldn't it be illegal for female boxing not to be included in the London Olympics under the UK's anti discrimation laws...surely female boxing has to be allowed.

  • Comment number 16.

    Exactly Strongback and I know a few women who would win more often than not in any fight. Once properly trained, most people automatically become better than the general public in whatever they are trained in, regardless of sex.

    re: alicewright56
    I certainly hope womens boxing gets in the Olympics in London, maybe you'll be there. Sadly though, discrimination laws are not the most important thing in this case. Only the IOC have the authority to decide which sports will be included in Olympic competitions.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/olympic_games/8146013.stm

  • Comment number 17.

    Let's get entirely serious here, chaps.

    It is quite, quite alien to any lady to stand on public show, slugging it out with another. Therefore it follows that any woman who *wishes* to become involved in this bizarre farrago of self-debasement is not a suitable Olympian.

    Indeed, when I heard that a Women's Boxing Association had been set up, I presumed it to be a simple ruse: compile the names of all those interested, round them up post-haste, and submit them to the care of mental health professionals.

    Are we to embrace the values of the bear-pit, and of the mexican cat-house? Are we to expose the public gaze to a foul bawdy-show, to stand with the worst excesses of Mytilene? Are we to condone a shameless spectacle of brutishness at which even Sappho must blush?

    No, I say to you - No!

    The place for the study of hysteria, gentlemen, is the madhouse.

  • Comment number 18.

    Why did you delete my post?

    I only said Amir Khan was entitled to his view of not enjoying women fighting.

    Just like some people won't like cricket cos it's slow. Doesn't mean they're wrong - it's a matter of personal taste.

    Saying Khan is 100 years out of date for having a different point of view to you is a bit immature. He doesn't enjoy watching women battering each other which is a reasonable view. Then the censorship. Poor.

  • Comment number 19.

    Bah, I've just realised that my comment was posted on a different blog. Please feel free to delete comments 18 and 19 and accept my humble apologies.

  • Comment number 20.

    Sanity at last! Yesterday I heard that the IOC has approved women's boxing as a legitimate sport. It has taken over a century, but now women can compete fully in the world arena, perhaps without snide comments from the lads at the back of the class and the dire warnings of the medical fraternity. Jane Couch led the way for Britain and all her followers are in an honourable tradition. So good luck to all competitors wherever you are based: Korea, Mexico, USA, Germany, Scandinavia, UK and a hundred other nations - remember you are fighting on at least two fronts and winning on the most important one!
    David James, author of Punching Judy

  • Comment number 21.

    reg the comments made by The Hand Of Hidden Forces - !! WDB !!
    It is quite, quite alien to any lady to stand on public show, slugging it out with another.'

    firstly, how you would come to know quite what 'any lady' would feel about anything is beyond me. perhaps you've been watching too much mel gibson?
    secondly, who is talking about 'slugging' anything out with anybody? we're talking about boxing. amateur boxing at that, which is a sport which requires intelligence, skill, physical fitness and nerve. in my opinion in that order.
    some people like baking cakes, some people like to box. if i was an excellent cake maker i'd want to enter the longest standing, most prestigous competition there was to win. an oven burns just the same for a man or a woman does it not? the 'dangers' are the same.
    the only problem with womens boxing is that people can't let go of pre-concieved ideas that it is unlady-like or wrong when it is just sport. people had trouble coming to terms with the fact that the earth is round!

 

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