Anyone familiar with amateur boxing will know that Cuban boxers are of a special variety. The island has made claim to 38 gold medals in the sport, the most of any country in the world since boxing was first adopted into the Games in 1904. Names like Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Sávon (two of only three pugilists to capture 3 gold medals) have been products of the pugilistic program, along with some of the best technical fighters in the professional ranks today. The same has yet to be said about the country’s gendered counterpart as a government ban prohibits women from competing in the sport, but a small contingency of female fighters are looking to change that.
Earlier this week, Andrea Rodriguez and Ramon Espinoza of the Associated Press released an essay shedding light to the situation, and the piece has circulated throughout a number of media outlets. As most fans of the sport will know, women were first allowed to compete in the 2012 London Games and have produced spectacular athletes as a result. Why the most decorated boxing country in the world has yet to follow suit certainly warrants a closer look.
“I see myself at the Olympics in Japan 2020,” said Idamelys Moreno, one of a handful of women hoping for a change in government policy. “That’s my dream.”
Officially, the Cuban government reported a need for further medical studies to confirm the safety of boxing on women’s bodies, but quoted in the AP report is an unnamed former coach who explained the stance by saying, “Cuban women are meant to show the beauty of their face, not receive punches.”
Followers of the topic might remember the name Namibia Flores Rodriguez, who at the height of her coverage was heralded as the “only female boxer in Cuba”. A mix of media features was released about the fighter, including a full-length documentary that followed her attempt at participating in the 2016 Games. Rodriguez, 39-years-old at the time, was only one year shy of surpassing the IOC age-limit, and unfortunately fell short of her goal.
But it seems her efforts were not in complete vain either. According to the report, the number of women now interested in fighting has increased many-fold, and they’ve received some local support as well. Emilio Correa Jr., an accomplished amateur boxer and silver medalist at the 2008 Games, has been one of the more visible male supporters of women’s boxing in Cuba. When a group of female fighters were thrown out of a gym because of their gender, Correa Jr. continued working with them, and eventually helped find another training facility.
"They can bring more glory to the Cuban sport," Correa said. "They are diamonds in the rough. ... The motor skills, the explosive nature and the energy of Cuban boxers are also present in these women."
Women have been allowed to represent the island in other forms of competitive combat, such as wrestling, judo and taekwondo, and the government has also been supportive of participation in non-Olympic fighting disciplines like karate. In 2006, women further redefined gender norms by forming the first internationally competitive female weightlifting team, and have seen steady progression ever since, medaling at the 2015 Pan American Games and sending its first female representative to the Games in 2016. Given its storied history with boxing, it’s a bit surprising the country didn’t jump at the first opportunity to allow women to compete.
The situation is similar to one I once covered personally in Peru. The only world champion to emerge from Peru is Kina Malpartida, and I was fortunate enough to be in the country shortly after her victory. Her influence quickly reverberated throughout the country, and when I returned five years later, a healthy squad of female fighters was pushing the sport forward, as well as society’s gender politics along with it. With Cuba’s expertise of the sport and the dedication of its athletes, something similar (and probably even greater) could easily happen. There could be something very special on the horizon both for women’s fighting and for the nation of Cuba. It just needs to get out of its own way first.
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