The eyes have if for women's boxing
The new face of Covergirl cosmetics is a graceful woman with glossy shoulder-length hair. And she is a world-class punching machine.
When she is in the boxing ring, one can't see the eyes that earned 22-year-old Marlen Esparza of Houston, Texas, a place in a mascara advertisement. She keeps her gloves in front of them and never stays still long enough for them to be clearly visible.
Esparza earned her role in the advertisement not on a catwalk but by beating Luu Thi Duyen of Vietnam 28-13 at the world boxing championships in Qinhuangdao, China. It made her the first American to qualify for the women’s boxing tournament at the Olympic Games.
"The Olympics mean everything to me. That’s what I have worked for my entire life. Going to London and winning a medal will complete me as a person," Esparza said recently.
Women will compete in boxing at the Olympic Games for the first time later this month since 1904, when there were some exhibition bouts for females.
The sport has gained popularity among women across the world in recent years. Females from 23 countries compete in London.
"The sport is undoubtedly universal and is spread equally across the continents. It is also universal among socioeconomic groups since it is accessible from a financial point of view," an Olympic Games committee spokesperson has explained.
Last year, Syria and Afghanistan held their first women's national championships. Sadaf Rahimi of Afghanistan qualified for the Olympics, but her invitation was withdrawn after she was knocked out in under a minute at a match in Beijing.
Esparza's strongest competition in London is likely to come from China. The 24-year-old world champion, Cancan Ren, beat the American 16-8 in the world championships last May.
The US will be represented by Esparza, lightweight Quanita Underwood and middleweight Claressa Shields.
The 17-year-old Shields, who is still at school, will be the youngest boxer in the women’s competition. She is seen as a dangerous puncher more than a technical boxer.
"I grew up watching boxing on TV with my dad when Julio Cesar Chavez was fighting,” Esparza said. “I then started going to the gym when my dad used to take my brothers for boxing, but they didn't like it.
"I wanted to try it, so one day at the gym I did, and I fell in love with the sport."
Esparza, the top-ranked US flyweight for seven consecutive years, is part of a generation of women who are making their way in what has traditionally been considered a man's sport.
TICKETS SOLD OUT
Tickets are sold out for all Olympic Games bouts in the three divisions for women, but at slightly lower prices than the men's fights.
"This is an exciting time for female boxing internationally," says Christy Halbert, a former boxer and chairwoman of US Boxing’s Women's Task Force. "Inclusion in the Olympic Games has given credibility to women's boxing."
But credibility is not the same as complete acceptance. Many posts on the social media are less than complimentary to female boxers. Some men’s boxing icons say the sport is too violent for women.
"I have always said women should not fight. They should not be boxing," British star Amir Khan said on Facebook recently. "They should stick to other sports because boxing is a very, very tough sport."
Bit Halbert and others have been fighting for years against the notion that boxing is too violent for women.
For as long as she can remember, women have struggled against certain equipment requirements and rules imposed by the patriarchs of the sport in the name of protecting women's bodies.
American women were at one time required to wear clumsy chest protectors, which Halbert said injured boxers where the padding scraped against their sides and protected an area nobody tried to punch anyway.
"We were trying to dispel a prevailing myth about women's bodies in general, not just boxers," Halbert said.
"A lot of people thought damage to women's breasts would prevent them from breast feeding or would cause breast cancer. They were making a lot of assumptions about women’s bodies."
The people who made the rules assumed all women intended to have children and cared more about their physical beauty than the joy of boxing, Halbert said.
SAME EQUIPMENT AS MEN
The 36 women who will box in London will wear the same protective equipment as men: padded head gear and boxing gloves.
The Olympic committee also backed off a proposed rule that would have required women to wear skirts, which are now optional. The committee said they created the rule because it was too hard to tell women and men apart in the ring if they all wore shorts.
In 2009, shortly after the Olympic committee decided to include women's boxing, the British Medical Association condemned the sport, saying the high-profile Games would encourage more people, men and women, to take up boxing.
"Irrespective of their gender, during the course of a fight boxers can suffer acute brain haemorrhage and serious damage to their eyes, ears and nose," a spokesman said.
But an Olympic Games spokesperson has said they have no concerns that women are more susceptible to injury than male boxers.
“Please bear in mind that the women, just like the men, will be wearing protective helmets and heavy, padded 12-ounce gloves," he said.
Esparza says said the skits rule was unnecessary. "It should be everyone's own decision, whether to wear one or not. Women should not be forced to wear a skirt if they don't want to. I'm not planning on wearing a skirt, but if we had to, I would be OK with it."
Esparza's record of 69 wins and 2 defeats has made many of her critics keep quiet. And she maintains: “Women should be able to compete in every sport."