Havana, Cuba – As acrid sweat fills a dank boxing gymnasium in east Havana, water drips by a crack within the ceiling.
Subsequent to a small puddle beside the ring, ladies carrying protecting padding spar whereas others pummel a fraying punchbag or do sit-ups below a fading poster of boxing legend Teófilo Stevenson, who received three Olympic gold medals in the course of the Chilly Battle.
An newbie boxing powerhouse, Cuba has received 41 Olympic boxing golds – second solely to the USA. On the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021, the Caribbean island received 4 boxing golds. However to this point, it has solely been males which have introduced again boxing glory.
In a nation the place entrenched gender roles are exhausting to shake, ladies had been allowed to coach however till not too long ago, had been banned from getting into the ring to compete and even to spar.
That modified in December when the Cuban Boxing Federation lifted its prohibition on ladies’s boxing and introduced the creation of a nationwide ladies’s workforce.
Whereas it sometimes takes proficient athletes a few years of coaching to qualify for the Olympics, the ladies on the Cuban nationwide workforce – a few of whom solely placed on boxing gloves for the primary time seven months in the past – are attempting to make it to the Paris Olympics subsequent yr.
“Earlier than my dream was that they accepted ladies’s boxing,” featherweight Karen Cantillo instructed Al Jazeera on the gymnasium.
“Now that it’s accepted, my dream has modified: I need to be a champion, win medals, and make historical past.”
‘A conquest for girls’
When feminine boxers competed within the 2012 London Olympics for the primary time, Cuban ladies might solely watch as their male compatriots introduced again golds. It was the identical at Río de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo 2020, held in 2021 as a result of COVID pandemic.
During the last decade, Cuban authorities’ resolution to stop feminine boxers from competing grew to become extra incongruous; not solely as a result of the Cuban state promotes itself a vanguard of ladies’s rights and equality, however as a result of the Nationwide Sports activities Institute (INDER) had lengthy allowed ladies to compete on the Olympics in a variety of different contact sports activities equivalent to wrestling, taekwondo and judo.
Virtually all of the international locations affiliated with the Worldwide Boxing Affiliation (IBA) practise ladies’s boxing – however not Cuba.
The president of Cuba’s Boxing Federation, Alberto Puig de la Barca, instructed Al Jazeera that the ban on ladies’s boxing was rooted in security issues.
“There have been worries about whether or not female boxing might harm ladies’s our bodies, above all when they’re pregnant,” he mentioned, including that the authorities carried out investigations lasting years to make sure athlete’s security could be protected.
Feminine boxers should take periodical being pregnant exams now the ban is lifted and girls should put on padding for defense.
However for a lot of, the underlying motive for the foot-dragging was entrenched machismo tradition and a paternalistic tradition of overprotecting ladies.
In 2009, for instance, the yr the Worldwide Olympic Committee accepted ladies’s boxing, the pinnacle coach of Cuba’s males’s workforce Pedro Roque instructed journalists that “Cuban ladies are there to point out their stunning faces, to not take punches.”
At a latest coaching session, Cantillo mentioned the ban was unjust.
“I’ve all the time thought that whereas males are stronger than us bodily, us ladies are stronger mentally. So, I by no means understood why we weren’t allowed [to box],” Cantillo mentioned.
Her sparring associate Melany de la Caridad Girado agreed.
“They didn’t need us to field – this was seen as a sport for males, and girls had been purported to be at house,” she mentioned.
However frustration turned to ecstasy when, in December, authorities introduced that the ban on ladies’s boxing could be lifted and that they might maintain trials for a nationwide ladies’s workforce.
Lives had been remodeled virtually in a single day. Flyweight Elianni de la Caridad Garcia, who had till then been working in a main college kitchen, “jumped for pleasure” when she heard the information.
“We’d been ready for this for years,” García mentioned, including, “It is a conquest for girls.”
Staff captain Lianet Gomez, a light-weight, took up boxing only one week earlier than the nationwide workforce trials. “It was the primary time I placed on the gloves,” she mentioned the athlete, who till December represented the nationwide karate workforce.
And because the state lifted the ban and began displaying ladies’s boxing on TV, public perceptions appear to have modified.
Cantillo, who had skilled for years in a boxing gymnasium to maintain match however had not fought competitively, mentioned individuals used to criticise her on the street, telling her that “the game is for males, it’s not female.”
She mentioned this now not occurs: “Since they accepted it, these damaging feedback have stopped.”
The 12 ladies that made the nationwide workforce – two in every weight class – have now given up their day jobs and, like all elite Cuban athletes, obtain a wage – though their dwelling situations are spartan: the workforce sleeps in bunk beds and should wash with buckets of chilly water.
The workforce made their worldwide debut this April within the ALBA Video games, a match open to primarily left-wing Latin American and Caribbean nations.
The highest six fighters went to the Central American and Caribbean Video games in San Salvador in June. They introduced again two bronzes and a silver medal.
Featherweight Legnis Cala, 32, who went from housewife to silver medallist within the Central American and Caribbean Video games in a number of months, instructed Al Jazeera she thought she would make it to Paris.
However she should get gold or silver within the Pan American Video games this October if she is to qualify.
“I’m already realising my dream by competing for my nation in worldwide occasions, representing the flag, and happening the rostrum with medals,” she mentioned.