Meet Christy Halbert, widely regarded as the foremost expert on women’s boxing.
Halbert is a former pro boxer, sociologist, author, activist and Chair of the USA Boxing Women's Task Force. She has coached US athletes to medals on the international stage and she has coached boxers from developing countries such as Vietnam, Rwanda, Madagascar, Guatemala, Syria and Afghanistan. And for the 2012 Olympics in London, Halbert is an assistant coach.
She’s also the author of "The Ultimate Boxer: Understanding the Sport and Skills of Boxing."
In 2011, Halbert was awarded the Olympic Torch Award for her many years of work to include women’s boxing in the Olympics.
Women Box: You started out as a boxer?
Christy Halbert: I had a brief professional career when I was in grad school. but I kept worrying about my opponents. I would be calling them up to make sure they were okay.
I had a major identity crisis when my career came to an end. I didn't love it and I did well. The sport is brutal. I didn't have the heart for it.
(LISTEN to Halbert tell the story of her first fight and the discovery she was a ‘pugilist.’)
WB: Why would a woman want to box?
CH: Whoever you are, you can get something out of boxing. The physical release of hitting a heavy bag, just that alone is powerful, especially for women.
Sometimes I think the women that come into boxing gyms are looking for a way to express their power and boxing may be the only way they can do that. That's not just a woman thing. Boys and men go through that as well. It's easy to feel disenfranchised in our culture. Boxing, very quickly, can make a person feel powerful again.
WB: Why do you think women boxing is controversial for some people?
CH: A judgmental comment about boxing speaks more about that person than the sport. Boxing is much bigger than that. It’s not fair to make assumptions about the people that box. They are a very diverse group. Maybe people are commenting on class or race. When people make comments about women boxing, I quickly understand their notion of gender. What they say about women's boxing cuts to the heart of what people think about women in general.
WB: Critics have made the argument that boxing is violent for women and for men.
CH: We live in a violent world. We all decide what level of violence in our lives we are comfortable with. I have seen certain kinds of fighting that I do think of as violent. But for me, amateur boxing feels different than that. To me it feels more like sport. The goal is to hit another person, that is true. You are hit and being hit. But in boxing we enter into a social contract with each other. You are meeting up with someone who is similar in age, weight, and experience level.
I believe competition in general is violent. Two people are engaging, agreeing, offering themselves to the other person. I am going to try to hit you and you are going to try to hit me. Brutal is someone bigger picking on someone smaller. Or one country dominating another. Repressing the oppressed. That's brutal.
Martial arts, boxing, that's not brutal. It is about who is more skilled, more of a tactician, strategist.
WB: What’s the significance of women boxing in the Olympics?
CH: This is huge. The inclusion of women into the games gives legitimacy. It is a signal to the public that the world’s most important sporting body says that women’s boxing is valid, and that athletes who participate in this sport are valid. These are legitimate athletes; their pursuit is a noble one. It sends a message that they should be taken seriously and respected.
Since it is in the Olympics, governments like Syria and Afghanistan are putting money into women's boxing for the first time.
WB: What is your take on the International Amateur Boxing Association’s proposal that women should wear skirts when they box at the Olympics? AIBA’s concern is that, without skirts, you cannot tell the women boxers from the men.
CH: My experience is that people know who they are watching. Women’s athletic bodies have been the subject of uniform debates since women first emerged on the sporting scene. Personally, I don’t believe there is a need to mark athletes based on their gender.
I wish the 2012 Olympics could allow boxers an opportunity to focus on their training and performance, and celebrate their entry onto the world’s greatest stage for boxing, to showcase their athletic prowess. One day I believe women athletes will enjoy the status of just focusing on their chosen sport.
WB: Where did the main opposition to women boxing in the Olympics come from? Why do you think it was such a long fight?
CH: From my experience, the opposition was two-fold. First were people who just didn't like women in the sport of boxing, and they made their opinions known. I remember at one point there was some argument being made that maybe women's bodies just couldn't handle boxing. Education and myth-busting were important parts for the lobby for Olympic inclusion. Second were people who didn't realize that women weren't already in Olympic boxing, so they didn't know to become advocates.
Sometimes I'm not surprised that boxing was the last sport to allow women in the Olympics. Social scientists have theorized that boxing is perceived as the most masculine of all sports, and was commonly considered exclusively men's domain. Still today women boxers report negative comments from some people about women who box. And, of course, they have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.
In 2004 and 2008 boxing was the only summer games sport not to have any women competing. Judo added women in 1992, Weightlifting and Soccer in 2000, Freestyle wrestling in 2004. There seems to be a pattern that the more masculine a sport is perceived, the longer it takes for social acceptance, including Olympic acceptance.
WB: Can you explain the different weight classes?
CH: Weight categories have fluctuated since the St. Louis Olympics in 1904. There have been as few as five Olympic boxing categories for men, and there have been as many as 12 categories. Right now there are 10 categories organized by the international federation. Proper weight categories help keep the sport safe, so boxers are not mismatched by size, and athletes are not attempting to cram themselves into unrealistic weights. It's physically dangerous when an athlete tries to make an unrealistic weight category through malnutrition or dehydration.
Currently, 10 men's weight categories range from 49kg to +91kg (108lbs to +200lbs). The 10 women's weight categories range from 46kg to +81kg (106lbs to +178lbs).
In the 2012 Olympics there will be 10 men's categories, and three women's categories. The women will only have Fly (51kg/112lbs), Light (60kg/132lbs) and Middle (75kg/165lbs). The international federation has announced that they will petition for more categories for 2016. More Olympic categories will help increase participation worldwide.
WB: The road to the Olympics is long and complex; can you break it down for us?
CH: One boxer from each country in each weight class may compete for a chance to represent their country in the Olympic qualifier. For women, that event is the 2012 World Championships, being held in China in mid-May. If they place in the top eight, they qualify for the Olympic Games. Then one boxer is chosen by the host country. And the other 11 competitors are chosen by an international committee, basing their decision on an athlete's competitiveness within a pre-determined continental quota. There will be a total of 36 women boxers in the 2012 Olympic Games.
For U.S. boxers, there were four pathways to get to the Olympic Trials. 2011 Pan American Games, 2011 U.S. Championships, 2011 Golden Gloves, and 2011 PAL Championships, for a total of eight boxers per weight category. Those boxers go through the U.S. Olympic Trials, which is a double-elimination tournament. The winner in each category becomes the U.S. representative at the Olympic qualifier. If she makes the top eight, she goes to the Olympics.
The 21 boxers who don't win will have a chance to enter the 2012 U.S. Championships the following week. If they win a non-Olympic weight category they can represent the U.S. at the World Championships in a non-Olympic weight. They may not get to go to the Olympic Games, but they'll have a chance to represent their country at the second-most prestigious event in boxing. A Worlds medal is an impressive accomplishment.
WB: How do the US fighters compare to those from other countries?
CH: There's no one more athletic or competitive than our U.S. boxers. But the international competition is fierce. Overall our main competition in the Americas are Canada and Brazil. In Europe it's Russia and England, and in Asia it's China. Those are generally the strongest teams we face.
The U.S. is unique in that ours is the only country where most boxers are simultaneously learning two styles of boxing: pro style and Olympic style. In other countries they focus only on the Olympic-style techniques, tactics and strategies.
WB: What do you get out of coaching?
CH: The most exciting part is seeing the transformation of energy from the unsure to the efficient; staying relaxed but ready to explode at any moment. To get to that point requires a tremendous amount of work. Boxing is personal work. The boxer has to put in the work of becoming her vision of what she wants to be. The coach’s job is to help that boxer focus on the skills that complement her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. But that is personal work.
Excerpts from Dr. Halbert's Acceptance Speech at the Olympic Torch Award (September 23, 2011):
"2012 will be the first-ever Olympic Games in which women will participate in all sports. The addition of women boxers is long overdue, and the significance of what they embody inspires all of us to accept challenges, regardless of the barriers in front of us.
A big part of being a boxer is just answering the first bell, accepting the challenge, sometimes full of surprises, and having the focus to adapt to any opponent.
All athletes deserve an opportunity to participate in their chosen sport, to reach their fullest potential in the sport of their choosing, to be respected in the sport they make their avocation.
I believe that at its best, Olympic sport is transformative -- it empowers, challenges and inspires on the micro and macro levels. At their best, women Olympic boxers embody the struggle that we all face regularly, to be our best, despite the barriers in front of us; to find ways to improve ourselves, to challenge others in a fair fight, and emerge from the contest a better person."