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Women boxers finally throwing punches in Olympics, but fight for equality continues

Kazakhstan's Marina Volnova, left, fights Kenya's Elizabeth Andiego, during the women's middleweight boxing competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, in London.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

The International Boxing Association (AIBA) applied for entry to the 2008 Beijing Olympics but was rejected over concerns about a lack of international competitiveness. Yet women's boxing kept fighting.

AIBA got a new president in 2006, Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu, who was also Taiwan's IOC representative. AIBA's women's boxing commission set to work growing the sport, educating decision-makers and tried again for 2012.

"During that time, we had to educate the population on women's boxing," said Christy Halbert, a coach for the 2012 Olympic team and a member of the women's commission. "A lot of people didn't realize women's boxing wasn't already in the Olympics. We also had myths to dispel. There was a long-standing belief that women's bodies were somehow too frail to box."

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AIBA's proposal for the 2012 Games asked for women to compete in five weight categories. In 2009, the IOC accepted women's boxing for 2012, and the two agreed on three weight classes, 12 boxers in each (51, 60 and 75 kilograms). One men's class was dropped to make room for the 36 women in boxing's athlete quota. To compare, there are 250 male boxers across 10 weight classes in London.

"We will give our best to convince the IOC to give more representation to women boxers at the 2016 Olympics," said Wu. "I can ensure you that the world will be shocked when it sees the first women boxers competing at the Olympics. Be sure to be surprised by the level of the athletes."

The IOC's decision has fuelled big development in women's boxing. Ten new countries sent competitors to the 2012 Women's World Boxing Championships that had never competed in a world championships before, nations like Afghanistan, Colombia, Jamaica, and Nigeria.

But for all the forward motion, there are also glimpses of the gender inequities that still exist. The women's bouts are all scheduled for afternoons in London, even the gold-medal finals, while all of the prime evening time slots are filled by men's bouts. Bulgarian coach Michail Takov complained on Sunday that the women must box on consecutive days, while the men get several days of rest between fights. And last year AIBA suggested that wearing skirts would make the women look "elegant" and help to "distinguish" them from the males, since all the fighters wear headgear. It angered some of the women, while others shrugged it off. The skirts were left as optional.

Canada's Mary Spencer tucked quietly into the athlete's section on Sunday to scout the competition ahead of her Monday bout in the 75-kilogram weight class. She's not the only boxer whose country has made her its poster-girl for medal expectations in this event.

The tournament is full of intriguing athletes. Take Irish five-time world champ Katie Taylor, who gave up playing for Ireland's national soccer team for boxing. Elizabeth Andiego is one of only two of Kenya's non-track and field female athletes. Britain's Nicola Adams paid the bills as a construction worker and an extra on the British TV show Coronation Street.

"It was always my dream to compete in the Olympic Games," said Adams. "There were plenty of times when I thought it was never going to happen."

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Here are some notable competitors in the 75-kilogram weight class with Canada's Mary Spencer:

Savannah Marshall (Britain) – The 21-year-old, nose bloodied, won the 2012 world championship and will have remarkable support in a boxing venue that has been boisterous.

Claressa Shields (U.S.) – This tough and candid 17-year-old upset Spencer at a recent tournament and the Canadian thirsts for a rematch. Shields' tough upbringing in Flint, Mich. has been one of Team USA's most redemptive stories.

Anna Laurell (Sweden) – The 32-year-old won bronze at the world championships in May after giving Spencer the upset that had jeopardized the Canadian's Olympic berth. The 6-footer won world championships in 2001 and 2005.

Jinzi Li (China) – This 22-year-old is Spencer's first opponent, and the one Spencer beat in the gold medal final at the 2010 world championships. She won her own world title in 2008.

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Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More


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