In September 2009 I sat in a briefing room alongside my England boxing colleagues at an international training camp in Sweden. We were eagerly awaiting the announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that would either confirm or deny the inclusion of female boxing at the London Olympic Games. We all now know the outcome of that decision and finally the only remaining Olympic sport not to allow women’s participation, finally achieved gender parity – or did it?
For me the news was good and bad; good because clearly women’s boxing was finally to become an Olympic sport but bad because it was only to include three weight categories – flyweight (51kg), lightweight (60kg) and middleweight (75kg). As a featherweight (57kg) this presented me with a quandary. As an ambitious and driven international athlete, there was no question that I would contest an Olympic place – the question was what weight would I choose? I had two choices; move up to lightweight or lose half a stone to compete for the flyweight spot. At the time the scoring system favoured the taller, more elusive boxer. The one punch, one point judging meant a longer reach and a ‘hit and run’ approach maximised potential success. With a somewhat diminutive stature, moving up to lightweight would mean I would be relatively short at the weight and subsequently up against it from the outset. There was only one option in my eyes – so flyweight it was!
Six weeks after the IOC’s announcement, the first selection camp for the inaugural Great Britain boxing squad was to take place. I had only 42 days to lose nearly 8 kilograms and to prove that not only could I make the weight but that I could perform once I was there. In those six weeks I employed the most extreme weight loss methods to achieve my goal. I ate no solid foods, choosing only meal replacement shakes. I consumed no more than 600 calories a day but trained for 5 – 6 hours every day. I ran over 100 miles a week; first thing in the morning and last thing at night – always in a sweat suit. I lived in that sweatsuit in fact; hours in the sauna creating a vicious cycle of training, sweating, insufficient drinking and more sweating. It was a miserable time but I had a goal and I was going to do everything in my power to achieve it. Before I knew it, the first GB selection camp was upon me. The first thing we had to do on arrival was to weigh in – as I stepped on the scales I weighed 51.1 kg well within the set tolerance – I had done it!. But making weight was the easy bit, it turned out – having been selected I now had to maintain it and perform to the highest level at it. That, it turned out, was easier said than done.
I was selected alongside six other potential Olympic boxers; Nicola Adams, Nina Smith, Natasha Jonas, Amanda Coulson, Ruth Raper and Savannah Marshall. All but one of them had changed weight categories in order to make the GB squad. Nicola and Nina moved down from bantamweight (54 kg), Natasha and Amanda had previously boxed at light welterweight (64 kg) and Savannah Marshall had to move up from welterweight (67 kg at the time). The fact that we all had to amend our weight categories, some of us to the extreme, illustrates the negative and often dangerous impact of having only three weight categories for female boxers at the Olympics.
I spent just under two years on the GB squad and my extreme weight loss methods continued. Having started on that roller coaster ride, I had no way to get off. As soon as I ate anything solid or drank water without sweating it out again, I ballooned in weight. After a weekend off I could easily gain a stone just in fluid – it was like looking at the Nutty Professor in the mirror the next morning. This played havoc with my mental well-being, not to mention my physical health. I felt sick every time I faced the scales, I was a nightmare to live with, my poor husband (and coach) had to deal with my horrible mood swings. I most definitely suffered from at least two out of the three aspects of the female athlete triad; amenorrhea and disordered eating. Thankfully I was well past the developmental growing stage so signs of osteoporosis were absent. Sadly I was forced to retire from boxing before the London Olympic qualifiers, as my extreme attempts to make weight over such a long period of time had a negative impact on my health – kidneys and liver began to fail and my mental health was at an all time low, enough was enough.
But that was me – surely I’m the exception? I know many young and talented female boxer’s who, quite rightly, aspire to perform on the highest competitive stage. They, like me, would do anything to achieve an Olympic spot. But with only three weights to aim for, many young women will be caught between weight categories and many who find themselves at an Olympic weight in their younger days will struggle to maintain it as they grow. I know a significant number of young female boxers who have sat comfortably at flyweight, but as their bodies naturally grow, they find it harder to stay there. The leap to lightweight is huge and the pressure to remain at an unnatural weight is even greater. It is these young female boxers who are at most risk of suffering adverse consequences from the female athlete triad and this is one reason why Olympic boxing is bad for women. By contrast male boxers have ten Olympic weights to chose from, greatly reducing the health risks of moving between weight categories. So whilst it is fantastic that we continue to see women’s boxing in Rio, we are far from achieving parity with the men.
This is not the only reason that the current Olympic boxing structure is bad for women. Because of the limited boxing weights, the world only gets to see a small proportion of the talent that female boxing has to offer. For the last four year Olympic cycle, UK Sport has funded GB boxing to the tune of £13,764,437. This fund is designed to support only 46 podium and development athletes. By comparison England Boxing has received only £5,800.000 to support over 140,000 boxers during the Olympic cycle including elite England athletes, schoolboy/girl boxing, junior boxing, youth boxing, grass roots projects and administrator/coaching salaries. So if we look at the funding allocation per head, each GB boxer benefits from just under £300,000 in that four year cycle. By comparison, those not on the GB elite programme enjoy only £41.43p per head over that same four year period. Why is this bad for women? Well its not for those seven women who currently reside on the GB programme; they enjoy all the benefits that international boxing has to offer. It does, however, practically ignore 70% of the remaining female boxing talent out there.
Whilst other countries continue to concentrate on the development of all women’s weight categories, Great Britain puts all its eggs in only three baskets and everyone else is largely ignored. Take the latest women’s world championships as an example. As expected GB selected Nicola Adams, Chantelle Cameron and Savannah Marshall for the three Olympic weight categories. Mindful that UK Sport’s funding is only for those three weight categories one might be forgiven for thinking that home nation boxers at non-Olympic weights may have their chance on the world stage. Cherrelle Brown, for example at light welterweight (64kg), having convincingly won the National England Boxing Championships in may 2016 should have been the front runner for the World Championships spot. But low and behold, she was not selected, in fact absolutely no England, Scotland or Wales boxers were chosen in non-Olympic weight categories. Only GB boxers traveled to Kazakhstan in May. Instead of Cherrelle, Sandy Ryan, one of the GB lightweight boxers was chosen. Sandy had competed at lightweight at the National Championships but was still chosen ahead of Cherrelle, outside of her weight category and Cherrelle was denied, yet again the chance on the world stage. All in all only 5 weight categories were contested from the home nations at the World championships, all of them by GB funded boxers. Where does this leave the other 70% of female boxers in this country – well the answer is hung out to dry.
We have some outstanding female boxing talent in this country. Stacey Copeland is a welterweight world silver medalist, Nina Bradley (nee Hughes) a former GB boxer is back on the scene at featherweight, Ebony Jones (c.57kg), Ivy Jane Smith (54kg), Demi Jade Retzen (48kg), Tanya Dady (48kg) and of course Cherrelle Brown. Most of these women are international medalists but all are outside the magic three Olympic weights. Unless they can somehow cram themselves into one of those three weights – they will be overlooked and will never have the opportunity to achieve or demonstrate their full potential as they so rightly deserve.
We need to see more women’s boxing weight categories at the Olympics, both to reduce the health risks and to increase the opportunities for women in the sport. There are rumours that we may see an increase to five weights in Tokyo 2020 – better, but still only half that of the men. If we do see that weight increase though, GB boxing will be behind the curve having prevented the development of the majority of female boxing in this country.
As ever I welcome comments and discussion and if you like this blog please share. You never know – the more people who ask questions, the more chance of increasing the weights at the next Olympics!