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Female boxers strike a blow for equality in Cuba


Cuban boxer Idamelys Moreno, left, trains in a gym in Havana on May 14.

Photo: AFP

In the musty funk of a Havana boxing gym, Idamelys Moreno smacks a series of whomping right hooks into a heavy punching bag. For the past four years, she has ripped it up in training to try to emulate dozens of Cuban men in winning Olympic boxing gold.

However, she and other big-hitting women are punching not so much a glass ceiling as a glass wall: In Cuba, only men are allowed to compete in boxing tournaments.

“They haven’t given us our chance,” said Moreno, a muscular 27-year-old with burning ambition and a simmering frustration.

Ducking and feinting, her stance constantly shifts as she works her way around the swinging bag, the room resounding as her heavy blows dent its synthetic leather.

“She’s a boxer with a lot of enthusiasm and enormous physical capacities, but she is nowhere near her full potential yet,” said her coach Emilio Correa, who won Olympic silver in 2008 and World Championship gold in 2005.

Cubans are proud of their unique boxing tradition, which has brought a haul of 37 Olympic golds and 76 World Championship winning medals — all by men.

However, featherweight Moreno — whose haymaking right fist has been honed by sparring with men — saids: “If they’d give us the opportunity, we can also build on the medal collection that the men have won.”

Moreno is not the only woman working the bags. Taking turns to spar with her are Yuria Pascual, a 26-year-old biologist, and Ana Gasquez, a French woman who says she was drawn to Cuba by the mystique of its boxing tradition.

Ever ambitious, Moreno has set her sights on “a world and Olympic medal.”

“If men can do it, why can’t we?” Pascual said.

It is an ugly paradox for these women that Cuba since 2006 has been represented in the female programs in all Olympic sports, including weightlifting and wrestling — but not in that last bastion of Cuban machismo, inside the ropes of a boxing ring.

It is generally accepted here that boxing is a man’s sport, far too dangerous to accommodate women.

Elsewhere, gender equality in sports has evolved and boxing joined the ranks of women’s Olympic events at the London Games in 2012.

Moreno dismisses the views of Cuban men that boxing is too dangerous for her, insisting that body protection is more than adequate.

“All combat sports are dangerous, but we have protection for the chest, the head and mouth,” she said.

The official reluctance to recognize female boxing “will end up discouraging” young women who want to climb into the ring, Moreno said.

They have role models aplenty across the globe, including Ireland’s undisputed lightweight world champion Katie Taylor, whose path to professional success began in 2012 with Olympic gold in London.

Ironically, women are welcome to train in countless boxing gyms across Cuba and Gasquez acknowledges the gesture from male counterparts at boxing’s grassroots level.

“Boys help us. They don’t discriminate against us,” she said.

It is the officials in suits that draw their ire.

Women seemed primed for a breakthrough in 2016, when Cuban Boxing Federation President Alberto Puig announced the possibility of opening competition to females, but three years later, nothing has changed.

They continue to train, fueled by optimism that the Cuban Sports Institute might eventually give a green light to women’s boxing ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

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