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Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Wednesday, 28 July 2010 12:49 UK
MC Mary Kom boxes clever

By Kath Woodward
Professor of Sociology, Open University

Kath Woodward
Kath Woodward: Women box for a range of reasons

In 2009 the IOC decided to add women's boxing to the list of Olympic sports for the London Games in 2012.

Boxing had been the only sport reserved for men at the games. Debates raged about this decision.

Should boxing be an Olympic sport for anyone, especially women? Was it progress? Was this creating a new sport at the expense of some existing sports?

Mostly the debate centred on whether women should engage in a sport, the main purpose of which is to inflict damage on your opponent and, in the professional game, possibility to knock the other person unconscious.

Many people think that this is a new Olympic sport for women and know little if anything about the fact that women's boxing has a history that stretches back to the 18th century in many parts of the world.

Having said that, "prize fighting" would be a more accurate description of the activity which often took place at fairgrounds and in exhibition halls in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

MC Marykom
MC Marykom has been nicknamed "Magnificent Mary"

When boxing became one of the Olympic sports at the third modern Olympics in St Louis in 1904, women's boxing was a displayed event; a brief moment in the 20th century Games.

Its invisibility during much of the 20th century doesn't mean that women weren't boxing.

They may not have been on television, or taking part in professional fights with big prize money but the sport was being practised.

The history of women's boxing is somewhat different from that of many other sports, which may account for some of the controversies which have surrounded it. Women's boxing can be seen to have started in England in the 1720s in the form of prize fighting.

In the 19th century women's boxing was prohibited in many US states and in Europe; it was banned in Britain in 1880, not very long after Queensberry rules had been implemented, in 1865.

Up until the mid-20th century there were, however, exhibitions and bouts on both sides of the Atlantic with popular fighters like "Battling" Barbara Buttrick, who actually did have a fight screened on television in 1954.

Legal battle

During the 1970s several US states allowed women to box, permitted new licences and approved bouts with more than four rounds and in 1993 women's amateur boxing was integrated into the rules of the US amateur programme.

It was not, however, until 1996 in the US that women's professional boxing was formally accepted and the Christy Martin bout with Deirdre Gogarty marked the birth of modern professional women's boxing in the US.

It was another two years before Jane Couch won her legal battle on grounds of sex discrimination with the British Board of Control in the UK.

Jane Couch
Jane Couch fought a legal battle to be a boxer

There are three types of women's boxing - amateur, professional and unlicensed.

At the end of the 20th century, the International Amateur Boxing Association accepted new rules for women's boxing and approved the first European Cup for Women in 1999 and the first World Championships for women in 2001.

Boxing remains controversial, both for women and for men, and new regulations have been brought in to make the sport safer, although boxing is far from the top of the tables of risk of severe injury.

According to an Australian survey in 1998 reported by AIBA (see link on right), boxing came 10th in a league table of sporting injuries with rugby league well ahead, followed by sports such as rugby union, motor cycling, cricket and soccer.

'Disciplined regime'

Amateur boxing is a long way from prize fighting. In the 21st century, there is considerable interest in the sport at all levels.

Boxing is a highly regulated sport which many women enjoy as a means of keeping fit, as a disciplined regime through which you can gain self-esteem and feel good about your body.

It's a competitive sport in which you can not only achieve a personal best but also gain pride in representing your country and engaging in global sport, for example at the Olympics.

It's a tough sport, but women have fought for the right to join in and in 2012 they can at the Olympics too.

Young women, like four times world amateur boxing champion, minimum weight boxer, MC Marycom of India, are looking forward to demonstrating their skill.

Kath Woodward is Professor of Sociology at the Open University and head of department. She works on what is social and cultural about sport.

She researches gender and diversity in sport and has just completed the AHRC Tuning In Project on Sport Across Diasporas on the BBC World Service.

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see also
Mary Kom wins fifth world title
18 Sep 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Boxing goes hand in glove with Mary Kom
08 Sep 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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