In the aftermath of the Olympics, ending as it did with a whimper rather than a bang thanks to Friday's disappointing closing ceremonies, the impact of the past two weeks is only just starting to sink in. It marked a number of firsts for women, including the first women from Saudi Arabia to participate in the Games, and the first female boxers to compete for an Olympic medal.
Women's boxing has a rich history. It first appeared in the Olympic Games in a demonstration bout in 1904, and it's even been immortalized on the silver screen, thanks to the excellent Girlfight and Hilary Swank's turn in Million Dollar Baby. However, it was decried as a freakshow and banned in most Western countries for the majority of the 20th century, including in Great Britain—now home to the first Olympic gold medalist flyweight boxer, Nicola Adams. In 1996, the British ban was overturned, but it took two more years until the British Board of Boxing Control (BBBofC) gave women a license to fight. Their argument? Women were too unstable to box because of their periods.
That the sport has been legal for less than two decades makes the courage and skill of Adams and her fellow competitors all the more impressive. Attempts to introduce it as an Olympic event prior to the 2012 Games were shot down over concerns that the standard and number of eligible competitors wouldn't be high enough—no surprise when you consider that the facilities in place have long been subpar, right down to the lack of post-training locker rooms for women. Sierra Leone's female boxers didn't make it to qualifiers because they had such limited support—they didn't even get enough money to buy gloves. The idea of that occurring in a men's sport, however emerging, is unthinkable.
Despite its detractors, women's boxing is arguably a faster and more exciting game than the men's equivalent. The scoring system awards points for hitting the target area with the correct part of the glove, and is the same system for both women and men's boxing. However, women traditionally score higher, as they are more active in fights and more skilled at getting punches through. (I bet the BBBofC is wishing it hadn't said anything about women and their periods.)
The ability of women's boxing to radically change cultural norms is evidenced in the Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU)'s Afghanistan-based project to teach women and girls to box, though the project, like many women's boxing organizations, attempts to impose a façade of "femininity" onto the sport. At one point, it was even suggested that the women Olympians box in skirts rather than shorts—allegedly to differentiate them from the male competitors. Oddly enough, the idea of the men changing their outfits so as not to be confused with the women never came up.
Despite the controversy over the inclusion of women's boxing in this year's Games, the reactions from audiences and the press were phenomenal. In the (admittedly a bit biased) British press, Ian Patel likened Nicola Adams to Muhammad Ali, and Katie Taylor's Irish supporters made the venue shake with their cheering, stomping and general enthusiasm.
It's even caused a few cynics to change their minds.
"Deep down I think women shouldn't fight," male boxer Amir Khan said prior to the Games. "That's my opinion. When you get hit it can be very painful. Women can get knocked out."
He now wants to make gold medalist Nicola Adams into his protege. He claims that, "Maybe women didn't have the confidence before to get in the gym or never wanted the title to be a boxer." With comments like the ones he made before the Olympics, is it any wonder?
Khan took a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and has held the world champion title twice, in contrast to women's lightweight gold medalist and four-time world champion Katie Taylor. They might not need Khan as a mentor, but if he ever wants any boxing tips, I'm sure the women will be happy to help.
Image: Marc Aspland/NOPP