12/05 17:36 CST Boxing powerhouse Cuba lets women boxers compete
Boxing powerhouse Cuba lets women boxers compete
By MEGAN JANETSKY
HAVANA (AP) --- Legnis Cala Mass carefully removes her necklace and smiles as
her coach slides her bright red boxing gloves over her French tip nails.
The 31-year-old swings her wiry body into the ring and pounds her fellow boxer
-- also a young woman -- with a series of punches, just as she's done countless
Today is a day she's been waiting for since she started to box seven years ago.
Cuban officials announced Monday that women boxers would be able to compete
officially after decades of restrictions, though they didn't yet confirm if
that would be taken to a professional level like it was with Cuban male boxers
earlier this year.
Still, it sparked excitement in women like Cala Mass who have spent years
fighting to be recognized.
"Saying that boxing is not for Cuban women -- that's always been the problem,"
she said, leaning on the side of a blue boxing ring in downtown Havana. "Where
we are now, we never thought we would get here."
Cuba is known worldwide for boxing, home to many legendary male boxers -- among
them Flix Savn, Tefilo Stevenson and Julio Csar La Cruz -- and owner of a
dozens of Olympic medals in the sport.
But the island has also sparked controversy by not allowing women to compete,
despite permitting them to do so in other contact sports like taekwondo and
Perhaps most notably in 2009, the former head coach of Cuba's men's team Pedro
Roque told a group of journalists that "Cuban women are there to show their
beautiful faces, not to take punches."
It was a sentiment Cala Mass and other women who have embraced the sport have
rejected as they've sought to change the rules.
Cala Mass began boxing in Havana with just one other women, spending long
hours training despite being turned away by many coaches and boxing rings. With
time, interest in boxing among women has only grown.
On Monday morning, officials with Cuba's National Institute for Sports, INDER,
announced in a press conference that they would hold a competition of 42 women
boxers in mid-December to choose 12 athletes for a women's team.
The team, they said, will compete in the Central American and Caribbean Games
in El Salvador, their first international debut. The competition will be a
first step toward the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Women were first allowed to
box in the Olympics in 2012.
Cala Mass, who now trains with five other women, hopes the decision means
their community will only grow.
The announcement comes shortly after Cuban boxers made a comeback in May in
Mexico, with male boxers competing professionally -- and getting paid -- for
the first time since the communist government prohibited professional sports 60
years ago. It was a big change in a country where athletes, namely boxers and
baseball players, regularly leave for paychecks elsewhere.
Down the line, once the team is built, those women could also potentially
compete in a professional capacity, INDER officials said.
Meanwhile, they said Cuban women boxers will be able to train in state sports
centers starting in January.
Emilia Rebecca Hernndez, of INDER, said that the changes would make it so
"Cuban women athletes can move up to the place where they belong -- right next
Yet Hernndez, who spoke only briefly, was the only woman on a panel of male
officials who said their delay in allowing women to practice the sport was
because they had to investigate "the risks that women could run."
Women will wear additional padding, they said.
Yet for 22-year-old Giselle Bello Garcia, who boxed alongside Cala Mass after
having only started boxing one year earlier for exercise, said the news offers
them a chance to show what they're made of.
"I have a new hope for life, because my life has changed. From now on, I'm
going to focus solely on boxing," she said. "I want my whole life, up until my
death, to be connected to boxing."
"I have to be the best," she added.
Havana correspondent Andrea Rodrguez contributed to this report.