Breaking from tradition

Breaking from tradition


Breaking from tradition

 Women pugilists like Mary Kom will get a chance to compete in the showpiece event from the 2012 London Olympics onwards.

It's hard not to be driven mad by the sexism that still pervades the world of sport. When people talk about English cricket – usually to moan about how badly the national team is doing – it's taken as read that they mean the men's team. The women have actually won just about everything in sight in the last few months, including the world cup, the ICC World Twenty20, a 4-0 win over Australia in the Natwest series and a draw in the one-off test to retain the Ashes. Only last month, the prime minister invited the women's team to 10 Downing Street in recognition of their achievements, but sports journalists remains obsessed with Flintoff, Pietersen, Vaughan and the other household names who tower over "English cricket".

Nor is sexism confined to cricket (or indeed football, which is just as dominated by overpaid male celebrities). Just before the International Olympic Committee announced that women will be allowed to box in the 2012 Olympics – for the first time since 1904 – the British boxer Amir Khan explained that the prospect made him uneasy. "Deep down, I think women shouldn't fight", said the Olympic silver medallist. "When you get hit it's very painful. Women can get knocked out." So can men, of course, and what Khan is expressing is an age-old prejudice: the notion that there's something inherently manly about punching someone else in the head.

Despite his reservations, Khan went on to say that he would applaud British women boxers at the 2012 Olympics, while the sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe was positively enthusiastic. "This move is a massive boost for women's boxing", he declared. Boxing has become increasingly popular among young women in recent years, boosted by Hilary Swank's portrayal of an amateur female boxer in the movie Million Dollar Baby.

Confidence booster

The most celebrated woman boxer in history is Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila, who once defeated Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughter of her father's old opponent Joe Frazier, on points. Some young women in this country regard learning to box as empowering, giving them confidence and challenging stereotypes about masculine and feminine behaviour.

That doesn't mean there's no problem. Obviously if men are allowed to box in the Olympics, women should be able to participate as well. But many of us question whether boxing is a sport at all, and remain unconvinced by the proposition that the skill displayed by boxers of either sex outweighs the fact that it's about two human being trying to inflict damage on each other. Licensing displays of aggression inevitably legitimises them, and boxing is one of the few activities where the participants are encouraged to do something (assault) which would in normal circumstances be against the law.

Men have died from injuries sustained in the boxing ring, and controversy rages over the extent to which the blows inflicted on Muhammad Ali during his professional career contributed to the Parkinson's disease which has radically restricted his speech and movement. While British women who want to box are right to complain about the prejudice that's kept them out of the Olympic arena until now, there are excellent reasons for thinking that boxing isn't a sport. There's actually something quite sick about watching two people beating each other to a pulp, regardless of gender.

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