The Growth of Female Olympic Boxing

Challenging local boxing committees and city regulators, women have a long history of interest for competing in amateur-level boxing — even before it was legal — but the lift on the ban for females in boxing has allowed women to grow with the sport, both on a national and international level.

According to isport boxing, USA Boxing first allowed females to legally compete in October 1993 after 16-year-old Dallas Malloy sued the organization for gender discrimination in federal court. This was the first step for females that paved the path for them to compete in women’s amateur boxing.

“When the ban was lifted, women immediately started registering as amateur boxers,” said Christy Halbert, PhD, the Director of the Boxing Resource Center. Soon after, amateur tournaments slowly began to allow women to compete. The New York Daily News Golden Gloves tournament, which was established in 1923, opened its doors to women in 1995, according to isport boxing. Then in 1996, The Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) lifted its own ban on females competing in amateur boxing, opening more doors on an international level for females.

“It gave women more opportunities to grow in the sport and have the same opportunities as men boxers do,” said Bonnie Canino, a former women's boxing world featherweight champion. “Most women get into boxing because it relieves stress, helps them get in shape and gives them more self-confidence. The tournaments have been really good because they allow for more opportunities for women to pursue their passion.”

In 2001, the inaugural International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) World Championships included women for the first time and a wave of females registered at the amateur level. In 2010, 300 female boxers participated in the tournament (representing 75 nations), according to isport boxing, demonstrating the increased interest in female amateur boxing. Then, for the first time ever, in 2012 women were allowed to compete in amateur boxing in the Olympics.

“Before women were able to compete, they weren’t able to go anywhere with boxing and they would lose interest,” said Canino. “Now that women can compete in the Olympics, be on a team and get scholarships, more of them are jumping on the wagon at the amateur level. And, it’s not just women, but also teenagers that want to grow up in the sport.”

To be accepted into the Olympics, female amateur boxers had to show that they had been competing in the sport over the course of years and it was a legitimate sport, according to Brad Smith, President of the United States Amateur Boxing Foundation (USABF). Having funded women’s amateur boxing since 2000 (contributing about $400,000), USABF helped set the framework for the sport to grow to a point where it could be in the Olympics.

“We funded boxing competitions both domestic and international and it put women in the sport in a position where they could go to the Olympic committee and seek entry in the Olympics,” said Smith.

It was no easy task to achieve the allowance of amateur female boxers in the Olympics, according to Dr. Halbert, who coaches and develops women’s Olympic boxing in the United States. In 2005, when Dr. Halbert and other advocates of the sport heard that women would not be able to compete in amateur boxing in the 2008 Olympics, they set out with twice the effort to get women in the next Olympics — and succeeded.

“We had to educate the public that women were not in every sport in the Olympics, dispel a lot of myths about women (like they weren’t strong enough to box) and we had to work with the International Federation to change the rules so women could box,” said Dr. Halbert.

Discussions included what weight classes to incorporate for females in the competition, among other things. It was decided that there would be three weight categories for women boxers and 12 boxers would compete in each category, according to Dr. Halbert. Bringing home two medals (a bronze and a gold), the debut was successful. “It was the loudest venue of the Olympic Games, they sold out all the tickets and the level of competition was extremely high,” said Dr. Halbert.

The 2016 Olympics will have the same program, but Dr. Halbert and other advocates hope to include more weight categories and more boxers in each category for the 2020 Olympics.

“The biggest influence on girls and women in boxing was the addition of women’s boxing events in the Olympic Games, and we’ve seen a worldwide increase of women and girls registering in U.S. boxing each year,” said Dr. Halbert. “This ignited a passion and interest in a whole new generation of girl and women boxers and it is a very exciting time to be a women boxer.”