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Female ‘real models’ drive growth and diversity in boxing.

Women’s Sport Network member, Hilary Lissenden was recently appointed onto England Boxing’s board and writes exclusively about female ‘real models’ drive growth and diversity in boxing.

This weekend I refereed in Surrey, at a dinner show to raise funds for a local boxing club. The evening started with a fantastic ‘skills’ (non-scoring) bout between two young girls stepping into the ring for the first time, and ended with a highly competitive Senior female contest. Both bouts, together with my own presence as a referee, were testimony to the progress that has been made in boxing in recent years towards properly representative female participation, and diversity in the sport more broadly.

Boxing clubs in England started to open their doors to women in 1994, but it was not until 2009, just seven years ago, that the IOC formally approved inclusion of women’s boxing in the Olympic Games. The female boxers who set the world alight at London 2012 have rightly become household names, in part simply by making history, but also by virtue of a brilliant display of talent in the sport they chose to fight in – and fight for.

Stories emerged, and continue to emerge, about sexism and poverty on the way to the top. Not to belittle such harsh reality, it has to be said that this is nothing new in sport or in life; certainly others had paved the way for the likes of Nicola Adams and Ireland’s Katie Taylor, who continue to shine, with others such as Savannah Marshall and Sandy Ryan joining them for strength in depth.

Barbara Buttrick, now in the Boxing Hall of Fame alongside Ali himself, was called ‘monstrous’ and ‘an insult to womanhood’ when she became the first official female world champion in 1950. Boxing is a traditionally male-dominated sport, rife with misconceptions about the physical skill, strategic intelligence and mental discipline required to excel. These are compounded by concerns for the health and safety of participants in what is undoubtedly a contact, combat sport – albeit one that is highly and stringently regulated. Centuries of doubt and prejudice are not quickly overcome.

It has attracted some attention that I recently joined the Board of England Boxing, the sport’s national governing body, as its first ever female Boxing Director. There is an important distinction to be made here: the NGB has appointed, and continues to appoint, the highest calibre of female independent non-executive directors with diversity in experience and transferable professional skills – satisfying its stakeholders as to ongoing progress towards gender equality at board and senior management level.

However, EB’s articles additionally require the inclusion of a number of ‘Boxing Directors’ on the Board. These individuals are drawn from within the boxing community, have worked on the ground with grass roots membership, and possess experience pertaining directly to the sport.

I believe this mixed model of governance has great strength, ensuring open opportunity for candidates with new perspectives from other backgrounds, whilst making sure that strategic decision-making, effective operations, and – perhaps most importantly of all – clear, coherent and timely communications are rooted in the reality of boxing’s particular challenges. It’s in this capacity that I and Micky Norford (the other incoming Boxing Director) join the Board.

My background in boxing did not begin until 13 years ago, when I walked into one of London’s few remaining ‘boxing gyms above a pub’ looking for a different kind of exercise. Prior to that I had an Oxbridge education, a Full Blue in athletics, and a career in publishing – the latter giving me good communications skills together with management experience in what was then a very conventional field.

But by temperament I am not especially conventional, which is perhaps why I fell headlong for boxing. For the authenticity of that gym’s spit-and-sawdust atmosphere, and the fact that people from all walks of life were working out together – some to compete, others just to get fit. Right there in front of me was a micro-model for breaking down social, racial and gender barriers … a little bit of magic on the smallest scale.

Over the next ten years I learned the sport through training, coaching, and setting up an affiliated club for the gym so that our boxers could compete under the auspices of the Amateur Boxing Association of England (now England Boxing). I also qualified as an England Boxing judge at national grade, and subsequently as a referee.

People often ask why London Community Boxing (LCB), the charity I helped to establish in 2012, is based on this sport rather than any other. At LCB we believe that boxing in all its forms – from non-contact recreational training to elite competition – plays a critical role in personal development and community cohesion. Individually it offers a controlled outlet for frustration, and teaches discipline and self-respect. Collectively it provides a non-judgmental environment, with clear boundaries, that fosters a sense of identity and belonging. It is a sport proven to be particularly effective in engaging marginalised and disaffected young people at risk of societal exclusion or self-exclusion, and at helping women and young girls feel empowered with improved self-esteem and self-image.

Our charity doesn’t actively ‘push’ female participation; we simply fully support it, alongside that of any and every individual regardless of age, gender, background and ethnicity. Our England Boxing registered club – housed on-site at LCB’s community boxing gym in Peckham Rye, South London – has a female captain, Ramla Ali, herself an elite national champion; and a former national champion, Rachel Bower, coaches the competitive boxers. This model, almost by osmosis, attracts women and girls who train with and alongside the men, with everyone being given an equal opportunity to shine within their own gifting and to their own potential.

Claims of the benefits of boxing are backed up by the statistics. Latest figures from Sport England show a rise of more than 60,000 people participating weekly in boxing-related activity since 2007/8; of total participation figures (ca 166,000), 35,000 are women – up more than 50% since the London Olympics. Drivers of this growth include a sharp rise in the number of schools which now welcome non-contact boxing training. At one girls-only college where LCB works on an outreach basis, we anticipated sign-up for a taster session of around 25 pupils: in fact, more than 90 girls registered on the day.

There is a huge and growing community demand, which, as it is met, contributes to health and wellbeing, widens the talent pool, improves public perception of the sport (thus bringing in both fans and revenue), and fosters true diversity – not simply in terms of gender equality, but in every way, including that of opportunity, affordability and accessibility.

A further driver for growth is the fact that in female boxing we have superb role models; not just competitively, but as true ambassadors speaking out about how we must continue to embrace change if we are to modernise our sport into something truly inclusive and vibrant, from grass roots to elite. The efforts of our Olympians are complemented by those of women like Stacey Copeland, former national champion, who now runs boxing projects for excluded young people in Manchester and blogs about her experiences for the benefit of England Boxing’s membership. Such role models are ‘real models’, grounded and honest about the challenges and development areas confronted by our sport, as well as its allure.

A final point is that volunteers continue to be crucial to the health of our sport. It is a tough environment for local clubs, and many would struggle to survive at all without human resources given freely and willingly from the community. The resources, for example, that enabled two little girls to step into the ring this weekend; to show the skills they have learned in the gym, the courage to climb through the ropes, and the commitment to keep going as role models themselves. I would encourage anybody interested in finding out more about boxing – what it really is – to contact their local club and go down to see for themselves just what is going on. It’s what I did, and I haven’t looked back.