By unanimously deciding on Thursday to add women’s boxing to the 2012 Olympics, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee helped gender equity but it also presented female athletes with a major problem.
No other Olympic combat sport has so few weight divisions, and no other Olympic combat sport features noncontiguous divisions.
So unlike their counterparts in judo, wrestling and tae kwon do, some female boxers may be shut out of the competition because their fighting weight falls into the gaps.
“I’m sure some people are hurting now,” said Marlen Esparza of Houston, a bronze medalist at 48 kilograms at the 2006 world championships. “I was upset because I didn’t think they’d sacrifice the lower weights. They’ve disregarded all the 101s and 105s, which is a lot.”
Women who do not fit into one of the three weight divisions at the weigh-in will not be allowed to box. They will have to decide whether to lose or gain weight in the next three years if they hope to qualify for the Games.
“Are there risks? Sure,” said Dr. Martha Dodson, a member of USA Boxing’s women’s task force, and a former ringside physician. “I don’t know how realistic it is for someone to be comfortable boxing at 150 to drop to 132. But three years is a long time, and when they have time to strategize how to get there, it’s safer.”
Hoping to get a head start, Mary Spencer of Canada, a two-time world champion at 66 kilograms (about 146 pounds), has been altering her weight for almost a year. After dropping 5 pounds to make the cut and winning the 2008 world title in her usual division, she heard a rumor that there would be five Olympic weight classes. She dropped to 141 pounds and won the 2009 Canadian national championships. When she finally learned that her nearest Olympic weight class was from 152 pounds to 165 pounds, she tried to add muscle to reach 165.
“As soon as I started,” she said of the push to gain weight, “I realized I’m not comfortable.”
She plans to stay at her current weight of 155 which is on the light side of the division. “I’m still close to the bottom, but that’s fine,” she said.
Meanwhile, Esparza plans to gain 7 pounds to compete at 112, the upper limit of the Olympic flyweight class.
“Even if I try to gain as healthy as possible, I automatically go in with a disadvantage because I’m walking into a category where a lot of girls will be stronger,” she said. “Some could be moving down from 119.”
Melissa Roberts, who won the 2009 national championship at 125 pounds, said: “I don’t want them to think we’re not appreciative, but many women are passionate about this and will kill ourselves to make weight. A lot won’t have money for a nutritionist and can’t afford a personal trainer.”
The past five women’s world championships have featured 12 or 13 weight classes. For the 2012 Games, boxing’s international governing body devised its three Olympic weight classes based on input from its medical, technical and women’s division advisers and a limit of 286 total boxers imposed by the I.O.C.
“We wish we had 10 slots for men and 10 for women because we believe in equality,” said Dr. Charles Butler the chairman of the medical commission of boxing’s international governing body, the A.I.B.A.
In order to add 36 women for London, the men’s field had to be reduced to 250 in 10 weight classes instead of 11.
Christy Halbert, secretary of the boxing association’s women’s commission, said: “If we were to only choose the better three lower weights or best three upper weights, that would privilege certain weights. The way it’s laid out now, we’re going to have boxers across all categories and give them equal access to move up or down in weight.”
Butler said: “We tried to pick the best classes we could get. We tried to look where there are real strengths. We want to go to London and people to go, ‘Wow — look how good the women are.’
“We’re not going to let women go up and down three weight categories unless they’re able to. We’re not going to let women hurt themselves.”
Some protective measures are pre- and postfight physicals and a requirement that athletes have a full physical exam within 12 months of their fights. Another is to monitor their international record book, in which weights and outcomes of their fights are recorded.
If all goes as planned, one thing seems certain: “Three classes will make it really competitive,” said Charlie Stewart, who coaches the two-time world champion Mary Spencer(64kg). “One of Mary’s best friends, Ariane Fortin, is a two-time world champion at 69 kilograms, so two world champions will have to fight for one spot.”
Joyce Bowen, chairwoman of the boxing association’s women’s commission, said: “The No. 1 priority was to get women [boxers] into the Olympics. Our athletes understand. They know the sacrifice had to be made, so they were willing. We just needed to get a start.”