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SPORTS: Women Carry a New Punch

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Aug 20 2009 (IPS) - Thanks to Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster film ‘Million Dollar Baby’, his heroine Hilary Swank helped raise significantly the profile of women who climb into the boxing ring.

And, when Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila took up her father’s cloak, she lit up a whole new generation of boxing fans around the world, especially when she battled the daughter of her father’s great adversary, Joe Frazier.

As people around the globe sit leisurely around their TV sets watching athletes breathing hard, running and jumping and throwing for gold at the World Athletics championships in Berlin, no one currently cuts a greater figure than Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

Bolt is definitely a phenomenon, and he is re-writing the record books. Still, one half of the world may well ask – what about our half, why is less TV attention in Berlin being paid the female champions?

So, it was no coincidence that also in the German capital last week, the International Olympic Committee agreed to include women’s boxing in the 2012 Games in London. It will end the anomaly of boxing being the only ‘men-only’ Olympic discipline.

And it was also no coincidence that the decision was made by IOC president, Jacques Rogge, himself a former boxing doctor. “It is a great addition to the Games,” Rogge said. “It’s time to acknowledge the tremendous strides made by boxing over the past five years.”

Rogge was referring to a previous IOC decision in 2005 when women’s boxing was rejected, largely due to concerns about the standard of competition internationally.

But the sport has grown worldwide following a concerted drive by the International Boxing Association. Fans of women entering the ring note that there are now more than 500,000 licensed women boxers in 120 countries.

Campaigners for women’s sport and fitness celebrated the welcome into the Olympic fold as acknowledgment of the justice of their long hard fight for equality, while boxing authorities hailed the decision as “proving” that concerns about competitiveness and health issues have been once and for all discounted.

Indian Boxing Federation Secretary P.K. Muralidharan Raja, calling it a “historic day”, said his sports-mad nation, which rarely does well at the Olympics, now stands “a good chance of winning a medal in London.” He noted in an interview with the Press Trust of India that the country has several promising women boxers in training at different weights.

“Women in boxing is not about aggression, but about performance,” British boxer Nicola Adams told reporters. She won the silver medal in the bantamweight division at the 2008 World Championships in China.

Olympics minister Tessa Jowell of the 2012 host nation, speaking on the BBC, called the decision “a landmark”. Jowell added, “There are still major disparities in the number of Olympic medals women can win compared to men, but this is a step in the right direction. London 2012 will create the first ever generation of boxing heroines, and hopefully inspire even more women to take up the sport.”

In contrast, in the ‘against’ corner is British boxing promoter Frank Warren. He told The Independent newspaper: “I appreciate how hard women work and train and, in this world, everybody is equal. But just as I don’t like seeing women on the front line in Iraq or Afghanistan, I wouldn’t want my daughter boxing. As a parent, I wouldn’t allow it. There’s a bit of a freak-show mentality about it.”

In this corner, the seconds (the support staff in the ring) argue that women are built differently, but no differently so that they are not affected when they have the stuffing knocked out of them.

They contend that those who don’t acknowledge that fact are, for the sake of absolute equality, actually calling Mother Nature sexist.

On the walls of a popular east Jerusalem hummous parlour, boxing photographs dominate. One proudly shows the proprietor, Abu Steif, a local legend among Palestinian fight fans, in a virile handshake with global legend Mohammed Ali.

He too has reservations: “Boxing is highly competitive, even combative. But it’s the only sport where the goal is to punch your opponent into pulp. I don’t want our sportswomen to face that kind of situation.”

On the other side of the ring is four-time world boxing champion M.C. Marykom from Manipur in India. She notes on her website that she took up the sport to help support her family financially. Now, she says, “It’s a big encouragement. I can finally realise my dream of participating in the Olympics.” Traditionally, boxing has been a sports avenue for have-nots to make their mark and scale up the social ladder. For those who win, it has sometimes helped erase socio-economic inequities.

British boxing officials maintain that women in the ring are fighting a double battle for equality, not just the battle for gender equality. They point out that women boxers come from very diverse backgrounds – from those who use it as a way out of crime, to navy officers.

But will women boxers really be able to knock out inequality between the sexes?

A spokesman for the British Medical Association, which campaigns vigorously for a blanket ban on boxing, put it bluntly in a press release: “Irrespective of gender, during the course of a fight boxers can suffer acute brain haemorrhage and serious damage to their eyes, ears and nose.

“Throughout their career, boxers will receive thousands of blows to the head. Each blow results in the brain being shaken within the skull. The cumulative effect of a lifetime in the ring can be irreversible brain damage. There should be no boxing in the Olympics.”

Paul Flynn, a former boxer, and now a Member of the British Parliament, described the IOC decision in a BBC radio interview as “foolish” and “no step forward at all for female equality. If anyone still believes boxing is a healthy sport there’s two words for them – Muhammad Ali.” (Ali from an early age has suffered from Parkinson’s disease, attributed to the hammerings he sustained during his career).

Between the ‘for’ and ‘against’ corners of women boxing, many people refuse to get involved in the fight at all. They argue that in the Olympics there should be no boxing for either sex. In the Eastwood movie, after all, they add, the Million Dollar Baby is killed fighting in the ring.

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