On Sunday, women competed in an Olympic boxing match for the first time in history. Russian boxer Elena Savelyeva and her North Korean opponent Hye Song Kim battled for the honor of the first Olympic victory in women’s boxing. Savelyeva won the bout 12-9.
A total of 36 athletes in three weight classes will compete for a gold medal in the last Olympic sport to include women. Although most of these boxers are content to simply compete in the Olympics, feminist critics are speaking out about the remaining inequalities between men’s and women’s boxing.
In Britain, women’s boxing was banned until 1996. Although the film “Million Dollar Baby” won the Best Picture Oscar in 2004, Women’s boxing was rejected from the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to doubts about its international competitiveness. However, after the sport received permission to join the Olympics in 2009, 10 countries started training female boxers for the first time. Some athletes, including Indian boxer Mery Kom Hmangte, came out of retirement and changed weight classes just to attend the Olympics.
While women’s boxing has come a long way, bias is still clearly evident in the Olympics’ handling of the sport. First, men’s boxing has 10 different weight classes and a total of 250 athletes. The men’s bouts are all given prime time slots in the evening, compared to the afternoon matches for women. The men also benefit from a few days rest between matches, while women must fight back-to-back.
Second, there was some controversy over what female boxers should wear. The International Boxing Association (AIBA) suggested that women boxers wear skirts rather than the long shorts that men wear. AIBA reasoned that, since all the athletes wear protective head gear, the audience could better distinguish the men from the women if the women wore “elegant” uniforms. The skirt is currently optional and most of the boxers wear a uniform similar to that of their male counterparts. However, the Washington Post called out Australian Naomi-Lee Fischer-Rasmussen for her “particularly short” skirt. The Post neglected to mention how Fischer-Rasmussen performed in her bout.
Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, the first match between female boxers was prefaced by a performance by women dressed in “form-fitting lycra outfits” dancing to “Lady Marmalade.” What was the International Olympics Committee thinking? Were they so worried about the acceptance of women’s boxing that they were trying to ‘feminize’ it? This spectacle was a transparent attempt to make women’s boxing appealing to heterosexual male gaze.
“People think if a woman tries boxing, she’ll turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger and lose her femininity and never have kids. It’s just a way to keep girls out. The fact is a woman’s inner strength makes this sport perfect for them. Women don’t crumble easy. They come back again and again,” said US coach Gloria Peek.
Olympic spectator John Riordan insisted he was against women’s boxing because, “it’s just that it’s new.” This line of thinking implies that women boxers just have to bide their time and be patient while they wait for international acceptance. Clearly women’s boxing has a long road ahead in the fight for equality.
Accepting women as boxers means accepting women as fighters. These women can in no way be perceived as passive or complacent. While many are celebrating the inclusion of women’s boxing as an important step forward in representing the full range of human athleticism, others fear what this year’s display may mean for future female boxers. For women’s boxing to become a popular Olympic sport, society must come to terms with women coming back and fighting again and again. Until that time, female boxers will just have to keep doing what they’re doing: winning Olympic medals.
Photo via family mwr