‘I wasn’t gonna fight in a skirt’: the ongoing battle to end sexism in the Olympics

CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER
CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER

This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

Tiara Brown, a 28-year-old police officer, doesn’t work on Wednesdays, but it’s hardly a day off. Like usual, on this sweaty and humid morning in early August, she’s putting in the hours at Headbangers Boxing Gym in southwest Washington, D.C.

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Brown goes to the gym every day, even on Sundays when it’s technically closed. She arrives dressed in black leggings, a black hoodie, and colorful socks, and begins her stretching routine, two-mile jog, ab workout, and shadow-boxing warm-up.

About an hour later, the other boxers and coaches start to trickle in. Brown greets all of them with a giant smile and hug. At 5’7” and 125 pounds, she’s the smallest one in the gym — and the only woman — but it’s clear she runs the show. This is her home, these are her people. This is where she belongs.

But on this Wednesday, her coach, Barry Hunter, wishes she wasn’t there at all.

“Right now, she should be in Brazil, training, preparing to fight for the gold medal for the United States of America,” he told ThinkProgress.

Tiara Brown and her coach, Barry Hunter, at Headbangers Gym. CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER
Tiara Brown and her coach, Barry Hunter, at Headbangers Gym. CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER

Brown is a natural athlete. Growing up in Ft. Myers, Florida, she ran track and cross country, and played basketball. But since her cousins turned her on to the sport at age 12, the boxing ring has been her happy place. It kept her motivated and focused and seemed, to her, to be the ultimate trick — a way to fight without getting in trouble. It didn’t hurt that she was pretty darn talented, too.

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In 2009, when the International Olympic Committee announced women’s boxing would be a part of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Brown could hardly believe it. She actually had an opportunity to be an Olympian, something she’d barely allowed herself to dream of growing up.

But that excitement was short lived. On the heels of the history-making announcement, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) announced that due in part to the limited number of spots available for both male and female boxers in the Olympics, women would only be granted three weight classes, as opposed to the 10 men get.

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHOLIS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHOLIS

A weight class is a boxer’s identity, and Brown is a tried and true 125-pound featherweight. As part of that division, she’s won the 2012 world championships and three national championships, among countless other titles. But in the Olympics, the only weight classes open to women are 112, 132, and 165.

Never one to give up without a fight, Brown has done her best to compete in the 132-pound class. But while a seven-pound difference might not sound like much to those on the outside, in boxing it’s everything.

“Even at tournaments when I did go to 132, I’d weigh in at like 129, 130,” Brown said. “Other girls would weigh in at 132. And by the time they’re hydrated, by the time we fought that night, they’d be 139, 140. And I’d still be like 131.”

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Brown lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012, mere weeks before she became the first American woman to win a gold medal at the world championships in China in the 125-pound class. When the IOC and AIBA failed to expand the women’s boxing field despite the undeniable success of the event in London, she tried to punch above her weight once more this year. But just like in 2012, she lost in the semis of the 132-pound class at trials.

This year in Rio, women make up 45 percent of the athletes competing, the most in Olympic history. But women still aren’t allowed to swim as far, race walk as many kilometers, shoot as much, or box as long as the men are. And women still not allowed to canoe at all — only kayak.

Overall, there are 850 fewer female athletes and 25 fewer women’s events at the Rio Games. In boxing, 250 men will compete, compared to only 36 women.

And so this week, Brown finds herself at Headbangers fighting for pride instead of in Rio fighting for glory.

“We talk about equality, but there’s still not equality in sports for women,” she said. “Not just boxing. For all different sports.”

While the Olympic Games have historically been one of the biggest and most rewarding stages for female athletes, they have never been about equality.

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Women weren’t allowed to compete or even be spectators at the first modern Olympics in 1896. In 1900, 22 women were allowed to compete in two sports — tennis and golf — meaning women made up just 2.2 percent of athletes at the games. At the following Olympics in 1904, the number of female participants decreased to six. And despite the rapidly expanding popularity and size of the Olympics over the next few decades, women didn’t account for more than 15 percent of the athletes in the games until 1976 in Montreal.

According to former New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, women in the Olympics had to “come from less than nothing, not even just zero” because of the “Victorian era” attitudes that ruled the games.

One of the major voices behind barring women from competing in the games was the father of the modern Olympic Games himself: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He was against women’s Olympic participation his entire career, saying he “personally” did not “approve of the participation of women in public competitions.” After the 1912 Stockholm Games, which saw 48 women participate in five events, de Coubertin said he believed “an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”

In the Olympics, de Coubertin believed a woman’s primary role was to “crown the victors.”

After the 1912 Stockholm Games, which saw 48 women participate in five events, de Coubertin said he believed “an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”

In his book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, Olympic historian Jules Boykoff reports that Avery Brundage, who served as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952–1972, was determined to make sure that women didn’t participate in events “which are not truly feminine, like putting a shot, or those too strenuous for most of the opposite sex, such as distance runs.”

Of course, since 1896, women’s rights have come a long way. Countries all around the world, from China to Malta, have elected or appointed female heads of state. In the United States, women earned the right to vote in 1919, and thanks to Title IX, equal access to athletics in high school and college in 1972.

Eventually, this progress carried over to the Olympics. In 1976, the IOC finally allowed women to compete in basketball, handball, and rowing. In 1984, women were permitted to shoot, cycle, and, at long last, run the marathon.

In fact, those Los Angeles games were so significant for women that Vecsey dubbed them the “Women’s Olympics,” writing that “perhaps for the first time in Olympic history, there are compelling female events every hour of every day.”

But, while it might have felt like women took over the ’84 games, the numbers told a different story. In reality, women accounted for only 23 percent of athletes.

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS

Throughout the years, men have come up with a multitude of excuses to limit women’s athletic opportunities.

Women were historically banned from long-distance running and cycling because of fear it might cause infertility. They weren’t allowed to play full-court basketball because they didn’t have the endurance. As recently as 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation was concerned that ski jumping, which was finally added to the Winter games in 2014, would damage a woman’s uterus.

Nobody has heard as many justifications for gender discrimination as Dr. Christy Halbert, a former collegiate and professional boxer and long-time coach who has been on the frontlines of the fight to advance women’s boxing for the past 30 years.

“We were battling some medical professionals that were claiming boxing was bad for women’s bodies, that it would harm reproductive systems.”

USA Boxing didn’t lift its 106-year ban on women competing until 1993, when 16-year-old boxer Dallas Malloy partnered with the ACLU to sue the organization for gender discrimination. The following year, the International Boxing Federation (AIBA) lifted its ban. It took another 15 years for the sport to be added to the Olympic Games.

“We were battling some medical professionals that were claiming boxing was bad for women’s bodies, that it would harm reproductive systems,” Halbert said. “Of course, implicit here is the assumption that all women are going to reproduce and that all women are going to also breastfeed.”

She’s not exaggerating, either. Back in the 1970s, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission required women to wear aluminum bras so they could preserve their ability to breastfeed. Even as recently as 2014, the World Boxing Council, one of the major sanctioning bodies for professional boxing, claimed the reason women are only allowed to box 10 two-minute rounds — as opposed to 12 three-minute rounds like men — is because the “menstrual cycle has tremendous impact on the body of a woman” and “women’s endurance has been proven to be less than men.”

“The only reason for that is just an arbitrary notion that girls and women can’t box three minutes,” Halbert said. “For them, it was a sort of compromise. ‘Okay, we’ll let them in, but they can’t box as long.’ The rules have to be different, and if this is only done because they’re women, then the underlying assumption here is one of sexism.”

After years of frustration and false promises, Halbert was finally able to see her hard work pay off in 2012 when women’s boxing debuted in the Olympics, and she was invited to be Team USA’s assistant coach.

“It was surreal,” she said. “I mean, very, very rarely does an advocate actually see their advocacy all the way through to a positive end.”

Claressa Shields with her gold medal in London 2012 CREDIT: IVAN SEKRETAREV, AP
Claressa Shields with her gold medal in London 2012 CREDIT: IVAN SEKRETAREV, AP

The American women did quite well in their Olympic debut: Claressa Shields won gold in the middleweight division, while Marlen Esparza won bronze as a flyweight. But Halbert’s excitement was dampened when she thought of all the women who weren’t able to be there.

“There are so many sad and gut wrenching stories about boxers that tried to fit themselves into a weight category that was either way too low or way too high for where they would naturally perform at their optimum,” Halbert said. “A great example is Tiara Brown.”

Halbert vividly remembers watching Brown win the gold medal at the 2012 world championships.

“People were lining up at the closest seats that they could to watch her box in that tournament because she was just dominating everyone in the featherweight division,” she said. “And then, she has to, in order to go to the trials, she has to go up to lightweight and she was small. And Tiara can hold her own, don’t get me wrong, she can hold her own. But in a judged sport, the size of the athlete matters. And the reach of the boxer matters.”

Unfortunately, the size disadvantage was too much for Brown to overcome.

“She’s a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal boxer. She’s got a fantastic inside game that any professional boxer, male or female, would be envious of,” Halbert said. “We didn’t see it in 2012 and we won’t see it in 2016 because there are so few athlete quota for women.”

According to the Olympic Charter, one of the roles of the IOC is “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”

And there’s no denying that women in the Olympics have come a long way. Since 1991, the IOC has mandated that all new sports added to the games have a women’s event, and the 2012 Olympics were the first games where women competed in every sport.

Still, one doesn’t have to search too hard to see that equality has not been achieved.

Katie Ledecky, the most dominant long-distance swimmer in the world, won’t have a chance to break her world record for the mile in Rio, because the longest women’s swim in the Olympics is 800 meters, compared to 1,500 meters for the men. (In the pool, at least. Women do swim the 10,000 meters in open water.)

During the walking races, the longest event women race is 20km while men compete both 20km and 50km. In cycling, women race shorter distances in the road race and time trial events. In Judo, women compete for four minutes — men for five. Men’s gymnastics has six individual events, while the women only have four. In tennis, women play three sets in the finals while men play five. In track and field, women compete in the heptathlon while men compete in the decathlon. Sixteen men’s soccer teams compete in Rio, compared to 12 women’s teams.

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS

And, perhaps most egregiously, there are still zero women’s canoeing events, while men will have five categories to compete in. Women will only be allowed to race in kayaks.

Halbert sees no reason for this other than men holding onto outdated notions of what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to do.

“It comes down to aesthetic. And the men who are making decisions about women’s sports don’t like looking at women canoe,” Halbert said. “They think maybe it’s okay to see women kayak, but to watch women canoe is not appealing to them for some reason.”

Speaking of aesthetic, it’s notable that the two Olympic sports in which men are not allowed to participate are rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming. These old-fashioned ideals of what is masculine and what is feminine don’t just limit women.

But the IOC isn’t alone in reinforcing sexist conceits. Even today, the media can be incredibly demeaning when discussing the accomplishments of female athletes. On Saturday night, when Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu destroyed the world record for the 400-meter individual medley, NBC commentators immediately showed her husband in the stands and gave her husband credit for the performance. When Team USA’s Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a three-time Olympian, won the bronze medal in women’s trap shooting on Sunday, she was referred to across the media as the wife of a Chicago Bears offensive lineman above all else. Ledecky’s record-shattering ways aren’t enough on their own; she still has to be talked about in the context of a man — the “female Michael Phelps.”

Additionally, female athletes face unrelenting pressure to look a certain way to fit into preconceived notions of beauty and femininity. Often, that pressure doesn’t come from the subconscious signals sent from society as a whole, but from the people running their sport.

Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, since 1998, has suggested women’s soccer players “play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball.”

“They think maybe it’s okay to see women kayak, but to watch women canoe is not appealing to them for some reason.”

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” he said in January 2004. “Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so.”

Blatter was, of course, referring to the bikinis in beach volleyball, which used to have to conform to very strict size guidelines — no more than seven centimeters in width at the hip — before requirements were relaxed a bit in order to accommodate various religious and cultural sensitivities.

Boxing has not been immune from pressures like this. Shortly after the International Olympic Committee voted to include women’s boxing, AIBA announced it was considering a mandate that would require women to wear skirts in the ring. Wu Ching-kuo, president of AIBA, said that it would help differentiate between men and women while people watch on T.V.

One Polish coach, Leszek Piotrowski, told BBC Sport that skirts would give a “womanly impression” and that “wearing shorts is not a good way for women boxers to dress.”

The mandate never went through, but wearing skirts is still an option, and some women feel pressure from their federations or the media to wear them. Brown, however, found the entire thing ridiculous.

“There was no way I was gonna box in a skirt,” she said. “I don’t train in a skirt so I wasn’t gonna fight in a skirt.”

Despite its Charter, the IOC itself remains a barrier for gender equality. There are rigid athlete quotas provided to each sport, which often mean that in order to add more female participants in an event, the number of opportunities for men to compete will have to be reduced.

Additionally, the IOC requires that events be proven successes on the world stage before they’re added to the games. This puts women at a disadvantage, because most national federations won’t support an event unless it’s already in the Olympics.

“Participation in the Olympic Games is much, much more important for women athletes than it is for men athletes,” Halbert said. “Men don’t ever have to have that legitimacy. It’s only women in sports that need that legitimacy. So by adding women’s boxing, then we see an increase in a number of national federations that start supporting women boxers.”

According to Halbert, the IOC and AIBA have once again promised to expand the number of women’s weight classes for the Tokyo Games in 2020. But it’s hard to believe them, because a similar promise was made in the lead-up to Rio.

CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER
CREDIT: VICTORIA FLEISCHER

Unfortunately, not everyone can wait that long to fulfill their Olympic dream. While equality gets held up in bureaucracy, life goes on, even for world-class athletes.

After failing to qualify for this year’s games in a weight class she didn’t belong in, Brown decided to become a full-time police officer last year. And she’s not waiting around for 2020; she plans to turn pro in the upcoming months.

For Halbert, this means that the fight is far from over.

“I can’t just take a ‘W’ for this,” she said. “This is like a lowercase ‘w’ with an asterisk by it, but there’s a lot more work that still has to be done if we’re going to even start to approach equity.”

At the end of the day, women’s boxing matters because women’s sports matter because women matter. And women outside of the boxing ring are still facing discrimination every single day.

“To me, women’s sports is a very, very important part of the women’s movement. But women’s boxing, is a very, very important part of women’s sports movements as well,” Halbert said. “Because once you see a girl and a woman box, and you see how capable she is in the ring and you see the kind of courage that she has to muster in order to face off against another opponent who might be bigger, who might be stronger, who might be faster, who might have more experience.

“Once you see that, you can’t go back to seeing girls and women as weak anymore.”

Sydney Pereira is an intern at ThinkProgress.