Some great news out of the women’s boxing World Championships held in China: 17 year-old American boxer Claressa Shields has qualified for the London Olympics. Shields earned one of the continental Americas’ berths to the 2012 London Games when England boxer Savannah Marshall, who had previously defeated Shields in the competition, won her semifinal match Friday. Since Marshall advanced, Shields qualified and will represent the U.S. in the first-ever women’s boxing event at the Olympics.
Shields was the topic of a very interesting and in-depth profile written by Ariel Levy in the May 7, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. (The article is behind a paywall, but you can read the first section at the link.) Living in Flint, MI (home of the failed American auto plants), Shields didn’t have a lot going for her, with intermittent exposure to her father and a mother living below the poverty line. She started boxing to become closer to her father, and was eventually chosen by a coach at a downtown Flint gym, Jason Crutchfield. Shields has shown a huge amount of talent, and is excelling at the sport.
The article juxtaposes Shields’ success with the gender disparities still inherent in sports. Levy also discusses Christy Halbert, a former boxer and current chair of the USA Boxing Women’s Task Force. Halbert has dealt with the unsubstantiated safety concerns that have been used to exclude women from boxing (in fact, it took USA Boxing until 2008 to get rid of a useless “chest protector” that they made female boxers wear.) The article offers one of the best explanations of gender discrimination in sports that I’ve ever read:
Boxing is hardly the only sport to enforce distinctions between the way men and women compete: In golf, women tee off, on average, about fifty yards closer to the hole. In major tennis tournaments, men play five sets and women play three. After a luge crash in the lead-up to the last Winter Games, the Olympic Committee reduced racers’ speed by moving the men’s starting line forward a hundred and seventy-seven metres – to where the women’s team had started. Then they moved the women forward, too, to the junior’s line.
As long as male and female athletes play by different rules, you can’t compare them. If you could, in the vast majority of cases men’s biology would provide an insuperable advantage, but there would be exceptions. Maintaining separate rules makes those exceptions easier to ignore; it makes it easier to think of women’s athletics as secondary, deserving of less attention and less money. (USA Boxing pays fighters who are going to the Olympics a stipend to offset their travel and training expenses, based partly on performance in previous Games – which, of course, excluded women. As a result, the three female contenders get about a thousand dollars a month, while the ten men can get three times as much.) Mandating that women play by a tweaked set of rules means that no matter how good a female golfer is she will never be just a golfer.
It’s true that by enforcing separate standards of play on men and women, sports organizers are effectively forcing us to value one over the other. In the wake of recent school sports gender conflicts, it’s important to realize that it’s not just the public who is making these distinctions. The governing bodies of sports are responsible for promoting gender bias as well.
Shields will be representing the U.S. in a brand new Olympic sport with members that are straining to overcome these biases. Let’s hope that her fierce style of play and determination will influence not just the spectators, but the USA Boxing officials as well.