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Blanchette: Women’s boxing finally arrives

For the participants in the first U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Boxing, the view from Spokane rivals the one from atop Everest – with one cruel irony.

“For most of them,” noted long-time advocate Christy Halbert, “their dreams will end at this event.”

Not that anyone considers the price of opportunity too steep.

For the next week at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, two dozen women – the hopeful and the lion-hearted – will battle for the single spot available in each of three weight classes to advance to the next step of Olympic qualification.

That’s right, the next step. These truly are the trials, not the finals.

The winners in Spokane must finish in the top eight in May’s AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in China to reach the London Games that begin in late July.

If that takes some of certitude out of this event, it hardly lessens the stakes.

Nor does it reduce the achievement of the pioneers and partisans who were rewarded in 2009 when the International Olympic Committee voted to include women’s boxing in the Olympic program – albeit in an abridged version with just the three classifications: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight.

As breakthroughs in opportunities for women go, it came easier than suffrage but harder than sainthood.

Among those pioneers is Halbert, once a track and field athlete at Western Kentucky and a boxer before the amateur sport was sanctioned. Eventually she turned to coaching, running her own gym in Nashville, Tenn., and authoring a well-regarded instructional. She also rose in the administrative ranks – chairing the women’s boxing task force in the United States and sitting on the AIBA women’s commission.

And as such, she couldn’t have been more disheartened when the IOC declined to put boxing on the 2008 program in Beijing.

“Word had been going around in 2004 that the (IOC) vote the next year would be favorable, but they voted it down,” she remembered. “To not make it in 2005 was devastating. Boxing is one of the few Olympic sports that has an age cap and so many women’s boxers had to deal with the realization that they would ‘age out’ before they got their chance.”

The sting was doubled by another realization: Boxing again would be the only Olympic sport without female participation.

So the sport’s advocates marshaled a more determined, organized effort for the IOC vote in 2009. To Halbert, it affirmed a long-held feeling that boxing – despite the one-on-one essence in the fight – “really isn’t an individual sport.

“No one can make it through boxing alone. It takes a lot of people – coaches, sparring or training partners, officials, medical staff, people taking the time to put on tournaments.”

In this case, it took some activists.

For those like Halbert – who last year was presented the Olympic Torch Award by the USOC for her efforts – it meant dispelling some myths – or maybe just ignorance.

“A lot of it was the same thing you’ve heard about other women’s sports – that they weren’t sure women’s bodies could handle a combat sport,” she said. “It really wasn’t all that many Olympics ago when women weren’t permitted to run longer than 800 meters – that their uterus will fall out or something.”

And now they’re running marathons.

The case had to be made, too, that the women were now advanced and skilled enough to put on a competitive show.

“As much as you wanted to see women’s boxing in earlier, we had to be able to show the IOC increased participation in other countries,” said Anthony Bartkowski, executive director of USA Boxing. “It had to be a tiered approach to getting accepted. We had to demonstrate a strong, vital sport with high participation – and show that the increasing numbers meant that the women were as skilled and athletic as the men.”

There are more battles ahead. Having just three weight classes – the men continue to have 10 – has excluded scores of women deserving the chance to compete at this level. Halbert’s message to them – at least the young ones – is to “keep doing your thing.

“I have great confidence people are going to really be impressed by the competition and we’ll have more categories for 2016.”

And as for the first U.S. trials this week?

“I’d like it to be a celebration, honestly,” Halbert said. “We haven’t had the opportunity since the announcement really to come together and celebrate that we’re finally in the games.

“I know that’s difficult – so much is on the line for these boxers, and it’s going to be very tough for those who don’t move on. There’s going to be a lot of tension. But I hope there can be some celebration.

“And I wish the 36 women who wind up in the Olympics could all get medals, just for representing a long, hard struggle.”