Decision to recognise boxing for girls leaves doctors dazed

Death of Italian boxer does not deter Amateur Boxing Association from opening the ring to girls. Louise Jury gauges the reactions
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Madeleine Davies has been boxing since a week after her 14th birthday.

She once suffered a black eye but feels the benefits outweigh the risks. She has greater self-confidence since she started training and loves the sport.

Now, in a triumph for equality that has sparked widespread alarm, a decision by the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) to sweep away 116 years of male tradition means she could compete in ABA contests.

Madeleine, 16, of Bromley, Kent, approves. "At the moment there are not many opponents and I have to go against someone in their twenties."

Her satisfaction was echoed by other women fighters who believe the ABA's decision to permit girls as young as 10 to train and fight under its rules will boost the sport.

But it left opponents, led by the medical establishment, shaking their heads in disbelief at the extension of a sport they view as barbaric just as another fighter, Italian Fabrizio De Chiara, was pronounced dead.

Women's boxing is not new. But for years the only place women could fight competitively was in back-street pubs, sometimes topless, in unregulated bouts that very often degenerate into nasty scraps. The Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF) was set up in 1993 to introduce some control and structure. The ABA move will throw the sport wide open.

Jane Couch, 28, a professional fighter and the WIBF welterweight champion, said she was delighted. "I'm pleased for girls who are going to take up the sport. It would have been a lot easier for me if I could have started with amateur fights."

And Pauline Dickson, 31, a founder of the WIBF and its English offshoot, the Association of Women Boxers, said: "I think it's great news.

"There are lots and lots of women who want to do it. But before, if there was a young girl who came along to our gym, we could train her but she couldn't compete. It was very difficult to keep the motivation going."

But doctors who believe the sport should be banned were shocked by the decsion. The British Medical Associaion called the decision a "retrograde step". Dr Bill O'Neill, its science and research adviser, said boxing was as dangerous for women as for men and possibly more so. "We just don't know," he said. The basic problems applied to both sexes. "The essential argument against boxing is the risk of brain damage, which is cumulative, and the risk to the eye, threatening sight."

Dr Adrian Whiteson, chief medical adviser to the British Boxing Board of Control, which governs men's professional boxing, was extremely concerned: "I don't think enough is known about the potential risks to women for such a decision to be made. Blows around the breast or chest can induce bruising and the nodule which is created is difficult to distinguish from cancer. No one is saying it increases the chances of cancer - but no surgeon is going to say `carry on', he's going to remove the lump."

Sam Galbraith, consultant neurosurgeon and a Labour MP, said: "It's a shame that rather than trying to curtail boxing they're extending it. Women are in the advantageous position not boxing."

Yet Commander Rod Robertson, chairman of the Amateur Boxing Association, said they were responding to a groundswell of pressure. Women and girls wanted to take part and official go-ahead had been granted in the last two years by the sport's international regulators, the International Amateur Boxing Association and the European Amateur Boxing Association. "I'm not saying necessarily that boxing should be encouraged for women - that's the women's choice."

Madeleine Davies said she was nervous when she began but it was a very enjoyable sport. "You take a risk when you go into the ring but the enjoyment is greater than the risk. It's not that physical, it's 80 per cent mental with boxing. There are lots of deaths and trouble with brains in other sports as well but they always pick on boxing."

The reason why could be seen in Italy yesterday. Vincenzo Imparato, the boxer in the ring with 25-year-old De Chiara when he collapsed on Saturday, said he would rather have lost the fight than live through this agony: "I could not sleep last night," he said. "I just keep thinking about De Chiara. I didn't want to win the title like this."