Risky business

NICKI IS ONE of my growing stable of female boxing students. She was wrapping her hands to begin a training session when she asked me if she'd ever be as strong as a man. When I told her probably not, she was deflated, but also – surprisingly – a little angry. I brushed off her question and told her she just needed to be the best boxer she could be. And then we began work on her jab.

Later I began thinking of her question as a defining moment. Over many years, my passion for boxing has given me an unexpected but privileged insight into the battle of the sexes, a way of finding out what people are really thinking as opposed to what they say or what the zeitgeist dictates. And this passion for boxing has exposed contradictions and myths in equal measure, which is one of the reasons I love the sport.

Nicki is in her mid-twenties, university educated, and a beginner at boxing, still grappling with the fundamentals of the game. She hadn't even been tested against another woman let alone a man, so why was she jumping the gun? Was I witnessing a sign of change in how young women regard their physical potential?

Her ambitions certainly were higher than my own when I started to box. She'd clearly been pondering the notion of exceeding biologically imposed limitations, while my main goal had been merely to survive. And she wasn't worried about how this would fit with traditional ideas about femininity. She didn't even offer the usual caveats, such as 'I don't want to get too bulky'.

Nicki's question went against all the conventional wisdom about how young women are supposed to think about their bodies, the pressure to be supermodel thin and the myriad other insecurities that nag and niggle and undermine their sense of themselves. Nicki wasn't telling me which parts of herself she hated or asking me how she might trim down her tummy and thighs. Instead she was trying to understand how far she could develop her body, what her limitations might be, and whether she could overcome them. Her question was about function, not appearance, and for that fact alone, it was significant.

Was her question a ripple that would turn into a wave? In the past, women recoiled from the idea of being as strong as a man. The muscularity of Eastern bloc shot-putters and discus-throwers, for example, repelled and frightened women and have long seemed indelible. Yet social attitudes can change more quickly than we admit. I've already witnessed a dramatic shift in women's boxing, completely transforming it.

For decades, the sport copped it from all sides. Some considered it unsafe, too dangerous for delicate females, as well as morally inappropriate, inconsistent with feminine attributes like nurturing and caring. Those who practised it were embracing a new barbarism. Others thought the sport a novelty, a sideshow – an illegal activity in NSW until 2009. And yet in 2012, only three years later, women's boxing became a sanctioned Olympic sport. Sanctioned and celebrated.

At the London Olympics, women's boxing was a sold-out event. Fans were happy to pay large amounts for the privilege of watching it: the cheapest seats for a four two-minute round bout went for $250. The capacity crowd at the ExCel arena chanted, cheered, and screamed at levels recordedat 113.7 decibels, officially the loudest of the Games. No one mentioned barbarism. In fact, if anything, the women were regarded as better boxers than the men. I couldn't find a bad word written about their skills, athleticism, tenacity, toughness and, importantly, entertainment value. Put plainly, the general public, uninterested in 'issues of equality,' fell in love with the sport.

SO ABRUPT HAS the change been that statements about the sport made earnestly only a decade ago now seem so quaint as to belong in the Victorian era: 'Women's bodies weren't built for boxing'. Or, 'A woman is a petite person not to be knocked around.' The latter was uttered by Arthur Tunstall, the long-time Secretary of NSW Boxing. Silly old Arthur, you might think, but he was of a generation that held these views as facts.

Yet despite the popularity of the Olympic bouts, you still get a few die-hards – like the West Australian champion Danny Green – saying guardedly that they don't really like the influx of women into the sport.

Maybe these holdouts need to find something tougher than boxing to define their masculinity now that women have upped the ante. This might explain the enthusiasm for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). But women are making inroads into that sport as well. The New York Times ran an article a few months back about television celebrity Anthony Bourdain's wife, Ottavia Busia Bourdain,a diminutive bright-eyed Italian woman who doesn't smoke or drink and goes to a gym almost every day for MMA training. She is the opposite of her husband, who is famous for his uninhibited and gargantuan appetites, but both could be said to have an appetite for life.

Back in 1996 when I first started boxing for fitness, British female boxers weren't permitted to enter competitions. The British boxing authorities claimed that menstruation made them too emotionally unstable. This is a stunning claim in light of the emotional instability demonstrated by the likes of Mike Tyson, who bit off Evander Holyfield's ear during their 1997 title fight. One wonders what kind of unhinged behaviour the British authorities had in mind and how they might have overshadowed the Tyson meltdown. And 'Iron Mike' didn't even have the excuse of PMT to fall back on.

When I first put on the gloves back in 1996, people were asking with all seriousness if women should even be allowed to box? In other words, at the end of the twentieth century, a modern, free and secular society was deciding what adult women should be allowed to do, as if they were children, unable to make decisions for themselves, unable to judge risk? Only sixteen years ago.

My boxacise instructor told me unequivocally that women couldn't box. No should or shouldn't about it. And at the time I didn't even challenge him when he gave me a withering look and delivered the sad news that 'It's because of the breasts,' as if the breasts themselves had objected.

That statement went directly to what men most value in women rather than what might be at risk. Since then, medical studies have found that women are not at any greater risk physically than men when boxing. Tellingly, no one has ever expressed concern about damaging female grey matter. Objections have always circulated around breasts, ovaries and reproductive potential.

You could argue, of course, that boxing isn't healthy for anyone. As with any sport, there is risk. Interestingly, studies published this yearindicate that women are less prone to brain trauma in boxing bouts than men. And when it comes to vulnerable, exposed, dangling reproductive organs, I'd say that men are putting more on the line. Yet only last year a young woman boxer I was advising asked me if she'd still be able to have children after her boxing career. I assured her that dozens of women had become mothers before and after their careers, some shadow boxing into the final trimester. I have sparred with a boxing mum who had to jump out of the ring between rounds to rescue a dummy her baby had spat out.

BOXING ISN'T THE only sport where reproductive organs have been used as an excuse to hold women back. Women marathoners weren't permitted to run in the Olympics until 1984. For decades it was feared that female runners risked having their uteruses fall out and hit the asphalt. Or at least that's what they were told. And now the elite women marathoners are only ten minutes behind the best male time. And gaining. The fastest, Paula Radcliffe, is beating the times of the fastest men from the 1950s. To date, no uterus has hit the asphalt. And Radcliffe's uterus seems to be in fine shape; she has two children to prove it.

While I have been surprised and shocked at the retrogressive attitudes toward women boxers, I have been gratified by how quickly and efficiently many of those same prejudices have disappeared. All the same, I'm constantly riding a roller coaster. Maybe that's what defines gender in contemporary society – it seems to be a changing at warp speed. No one mentions breasts any more as a reason why women should not compete, lest they be buried under scorn. But there's something else going on.

I think back to when my first book, Bruising (Picador, 2000) was published. At the time, no one really knew what a woman boxer looked like. Sylvester Stallone in drag? The publishers decided against a cover image that was too threatening. Instead they used a demure image of a woman who could as easily be holding a baby as wrapping her hands for combat. She looked fit but not especially strong. Elegant and unintimidating.

Image is everything, after all. Regardless of performance, in sport and politics, women are often assessed by both genders on appearance: what they wear, their hairstyle, body shape. A great deal of mental energy and public discourse is taken up with arguments about what constitutes a real woman.

This remains a contested area in sport. Now, more than ever, the question of authenticity is an issue. Despite my optimism about Nicki's question, the reality is that women can still be considered too strong or too good to be feminine or even a genuine biological female. Maybe if they knew they could still conceal their strength from men – and look a lot weaker than they are – they might not be so reluctant to seek physical power. But this is a culture in which women have traditionally also been reluctant to show their intelligence, since masculinity depended on the myth that women were lesser in every way.

Sport is as much about limitations as it is about physical supremacy and dominance over others. Height can limit you, as can body type, aerobic capacity, and talent. But when it comes to gender it seems that sometimes exceeding limitations is as problematic as the limitations themselves. We're damned if we succeed and damned if we fail. What man ever considered making himself less competitive, weaker, slower, more stupid so as not threaten anyone's illusions?

FEMALE SPORT IS considered inferior because of the differences in strength between men and women. Less exciting and therefore less commercially valuable, and that seems to suit everyone in the business of sport just fine. But if that territory is threatened, female athletes who have pushed themselves over those notional boundaries have had to defend accusations about their authenticity and even their right to compete. The danger is, the more exciting these women are to watch, the more marketable they are – the more likely to grab one of those overpaid and over-idolised spots previously only available to men.

The Olympics tend to tell us more about what is happening on the sport and gender front than any other competition. Four years seems to be a long time between drinks when it comes to women's sporting progress. And while the women were welcomed into the boxing ring this time, athletes in other fields had to grapple with the paradox that too much success actually works against them.

This was certainly the case when South African sprinter Caster Semenya became the focus of so-called gender policing. Back in 2009, she was at the centre of an international controversy after winning the 800-metre world championship in a time of 1:55:45, by a two-second margin. Her deep voice and a muscular physique prompted authorities to question her gender. Investigations revealed higher than normal levels of testosterone. Somewhat astonishingly, she was given treatment for this apparent condition to make her more 'normal'.

In the London Olympics, she won silver, with many speculating that she was actually trying not to win in order to avert scrutiny. Or that medication had slowed her down to the pace of a more authentic woman. There's that idea of a 'real woman' emerging again in a different guise. What does a real woman look like? How does a real woman perform? How fast can she run?

In 2012 Australia hosted its very own version of this story when Usanakorn Kokietgym, the Thai-based World Boxing Council bantamweight world champion, came here to defend her title against Susie Ramadan. Kokietgym was also accused of not being an authentic woman. I remember Ramadan's manager, who is a former champion himself and a wily media manipulator, telling me that Kokietgym's hairy armpits were a cause for suspicion. And although he'd never boxed with her, he assured everyone that she 'hit harder than most blokes I know'. To hit hard? Isn't that the point? Male punching power is never at issue.

Kokietgym also underwent blood tests and was found to have high levels of testosterone. But since she lost the fight, nothing came of it. That particular scenario could provide evidence that testosterone, contrary to the usual suppositions about this magical hormone, doesn't actually help you become a better boxer.

Indeed, Columbia University Associate Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young and Stanford University senior research scholar Katrina Karkazia found that women with no discernable tissue response to testosterone are actually over-represented among elite athletes: 'Testosterone is not the master molecule of athleticism. As counterintuitive as it might seem, there is no evidence that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful ones.'

One might ask why high levels of certain hormones should be considered different from, say, Ian Thorpe's giant feet or Usain Bolt's long legs. Or any other physical advantage that an elite athlete has over the rest of us. Their genetic freakishness is what makes them elite, after all. As Elaine Salo, an anthropology professor at the University of Pretoria, says, 'What is athletics, if not the ability of the biological body to extend itself?' This may be true for men. And so we arrive, yet again, at the central question in any gender debate: Are the limits placed on women biological or cultural?

More than a decade ago, I flagged this anxiety in an essay for Overland titled 'Sport and the Threat of Female Muscularity'. At the time, hormone testing didn't exist, just pure prejudice. French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, at the time only sixteen years old, was accused of being not feminine enough on the court, with her broad shoulders and her power shots. But the accusations this time came from her female opponents on the other side of the net.

Playing in the 1999 Australian Open, Mauresmo took Lindsay Davenport's comment that she 'played like a guy' as praise when she defeated Davenport, the reigning champion, in the semi-finals. The tanned, statuesque Mauresmo was proud of her strength and worked at it in the gym. Then Martina Hingis, who was to play her in the final, was reported as saying that Mauresmo was 'half a man' because of her muscular build and sexual orientation toward women. The local gender police breathed a sigh of relief when Hingis won the final. The tabloid headline was 'Three times a lady' for her three Australian Open victories. The real victory, it seemed, was for traditional femininity and keeping it within its accepted boundaries. I remind you, this was only thirteen years ago.

Then at the 1999 US Open, Serena Williams was criticised by male commentators for making women's tennis boring because she was hitting the ball too hard, serving at speeds that equalled the men's. Following this logic, men's tennis must also be boring. Also following this logic, women should compete with men.

SPORT IS A useful prism through which to view the rest of society. Writers such as Mailer and Hemingway knew this, and more recently Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates. Sport does what we are often unprepared to do consciously: categorise, sort, and rate human beings into clusters according to age, sex, and ability. Defeat and dominance, selection and rejection. Sport can be cruel and Darwinian, almost fascist in its glorification of genetic gifts and superiority, except, in the case of gender, when it might threaten prejudices.

Sometimes it can be scary to look at anything too intensely. For me, boxing has served as a magnifying glass, showing me close up things I might never have otherwise considered about gender. I know one thing with certainty: women are capable of great versatility when it comes to playing the gender game and keeping within its rules. Women underplay their greatness, often apologise for winning, and conceal their strength for all kinds of reasons. These cultural elements coupled with a long history of exclusion from sport until relatively recently means I don't think we've seen the best of what women are capable.

At the 2010 Oceania boxing championships, I was sitting next to one of the female boxers. She was the 74-kilogram representative who went on to compete in the women's world championships in Barbados later that year. We were watching the men in the semi-finals, favourites to win Olympic selection.

'Gee,' she said, 'I wish I could be as good as the boys. Isn't that every girl's dream, though, to be as good as the boys?'

I'd never heard anyone say that before. Another step forward? She pulled me back to earth a few days later. 'When I'm finished with boxing,' she said, I'm definitely going to get a boob job.'

Gratifyingly, Ottavia Bourdain doesn't apologise. She is upfront about her reason for getting into Mixed Martial Arts: she needed an outlet for her aggression. And she doesn't indulge in any conciliatory girlish simpering about not really wanting to defeat her opponent: 'When I see an opportunity, I take it. That's how you win.' She made this comment after trapping her male opponent's arm and head between her legs until his face turned crimson and he was forced to tap his submission. Her opponent was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.

Another step forward? Next to the piece on Bourdain was an item titled 'Parsing Pink' and yet another on how Helmut Lang bondage platforms were being replaced by stilettos a tad lower. So there we have it: Mixed Martial Arts cheek by jowl with reportage on pink frocks and shoes that are modern society's version of foot-binding. In her classic book On Boxing (Doubleday, 1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote that the sport 'is the quintessential image of human struggle not only against other people, masculine or otherwise, but one's own divided self.'

EARLIER IN THIS essay I wrote that women's boxing has changed completely, which is true. We've come a long way, with more distances to traverse, from the notion that women were too fragile for boxing, their well-being in danger, to a sport transformed, elevated. You could easily come to the conclusion as you look at the history of women's boxing, that the main risk is to the idea of male supremacy rather than the health of the female competitors. And not just the idea of that supremacy but the fact of it.

And that fight isn't finished just yet.

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