August 07, 2012
Walking around without Olympic fever has made me feel like a sicko these last couple weeks. The times I’ve sat down to watch the games on TV, I’ve annoyed my family because I’m not content to appreciate the athleticism on display. I can only engage when I start spinning stories, which for me takes the form of posing questions out loud.
—What’s it like to be 16 when you reach this zenith? Or to be 32, at the end of the line for an esoteric pursuit to which you’ve devoted your life?
—How does it feel when years of effort and a near-perfect performance earn you a medal, but a silver one, and nothing less than gold will do?
—And is there anything weird about the way that middle-aged male coach is embracing that whip of girl muscle, or I am just witnessing purest joy? What is the relationship like between a coach and athlete, anyway? Between a parent and coach? Between teammates who are also rivals?
—And what are the inner conflicts that drive or arise from this total devotion to sport? What tensions develop if the conflicts are ignored?
My chatter gets on everyone’s nerves. “Can’t you just watch?” my son finally says. I wander away from the TV again and leave them to it with the rest of the world.
But there is one event for which I’ve been primed for years: women’s boxing. In case you’ve been living under the same rock I have when it comes to every other sport, let me tell you this: These 2012 games are the first in which women boxers are allowed to compete. And I’ve been waiting.
In part, I’m interested in women’s boxing because the pre-Olympic run-up has already stoked my narrative-hungry mind. Places like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have published in-depth features on the likely contenders in the last year, and I’ve read other stories in various dailies.
But I’ve been drawn to the articles in the first place because of a more primal interest. Women’s boxing brings out in me a ferocious lust for physical girl power. And although my closet and my lifestyle belie this, I apparently have a deep desire to see some powerhouse fuck-yous given to notions of conventional femininity. My shoulders square and my eyes get teary every time I read about a girl convincing her family to let her box or putting up with harsh treatment until she gains respect at the gym. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, after all. Helen Reddy roared about womanhood on the radio, but I had friends whose parents still advised them not to play sports because muscles weren’t pretty on girls. And although we’ve come a long way, etcetera, and even I find certain tenets of feminism dusty, the comments under the women’s boxing videos on YouTube show that even the most basic sexism is alive and well in this country, let alone around the world. Imagine what it takes for an Indian woman to become a high-ranking women’s boxer. (This web site on the upcoming documentary With This Ring should help.)
So I had marked my calendar with the start date of the Olympic boxing events—this past Sunday, August 5th. But in my ignorance, when the day came, I didn’t know exactly how to make sure I’d get to watch. By the time I figured out that NBC had a very comprehensive Olympics website, lightweight Queen Underwood had already been eliminated in her first bout.
She’d been my favorite. I’d pretty literally fallen in love with her when I read The New York Times article in which she discussed at length the sexual abuse she and her sister had received at the hand of their father. For days I walked around in thrall to her bravery, her character, her physical and mental strength and vulnerability. I was aghast when it looked like she wouldn’t make it to the Olympics. I was exhilarated when she got to go after all. When I found the treasure trove of boxing-related videos on the NBC site, I viewed several of them repeatedly. Check out this Today segment Underwood does with BFF flyweight Marla Esparza. You can see her glow. You can see the bond between the two fighters. You can see the warmth that exists between all four of the women on screen, the way it combines new and old paradigms. I love it when the reporters take their turn with the gloves. The way the woman in the pink really gets it—the electricity in her step and punch. We have it in us.
I also liked watching the fight itself, even though Underwood lost. Because, her arms! Her speed! And her response afterwards. (What must it feel like to have cameras in your face at such a bitter moment?) Seeing her fight and lose, I finally get it. I get it. What the Olympics can give: She is a hero to me.
And her teammates, too. Flyweight Marlan Esparza had a bye the first round, so she’s already assured a medal. She fights in the semifinal on Wednesday, August 8, when the loser ties for a bronze and the winner goes to fight for the gold on Thursday. Her story is amazing as well. As she points out in this Atlantic article, she’s the clean-cut one from a good home, by the standards of the team, but she’d been thrown out of school for her violence before she found boxing, and she confounded the expectations of her Mexican-American family once she did. I love the way writer Irina Aleksander flat-out asks all the juicy questions that hover around the male coach-female athlete relationship. There’s no doubt: Esparza and her coach are enmeshed. Under his advisement, she trains to the exclusion of literally everything else and works herself until she pukes. She’s a Cover Girl spokesperson. She’s cocky as hell.
Middleweight Claressa Shields is also guaranteed at least a bronze. She’s only 17, and she’s bounced between the homes of several family members as she’s grown up in impoverished Flint, Michigan. The New Yorker ran a story about her that, in true New Yorker fashion, provides a comprehensive overview of women’s boxing and peers into all its corners—the prevalence of lesbians in the sport, the high numbers of boxers who suffered abusive childhoods, the ways expectations of femininity show up, the way feminism does, the difficulty in getting paid for all this hard work. Shields will be fighting in the semifinals on Wednesday. If she wins, she’ll fight in the finals on Thursday.
China has a flyweight and middleweight still in the race, too, so if you’re feeling nationalistic, there’s that extra drama. Check out the brackets here.
My husband is surprised at my interest in boxing. I’m more the yoga sort. I avoid violent movies and worry about head injuries. I’ve lived most of my life in safe environments, and I want to keep it that way. But on a primal level, I still feel the vulnerability of being a child and a female. I know the fear of being overpowered, of being seen as no kind of threat. When I watch these women fight, when I think about it afterwards, I sometimes picture myself in the stands screaming so loudly the cords strain in my neck until they pop. My blood rushes up like a fountain, my blood-drenched hair is standing on end, and flames start to shoot from my eyeballs. I’m a Kali figure, and everyone knows to fear me. To fear us. Birth and death. Motherfuckers.
That catharsis is my luxury as a spectator, though. The fighters themselves have to stay smart and focused. Queen Underwood told the story of her abuse to the New York Times—a brave and generous thing to do—but when she’s asked about it now, she brings the attention back to the present, where she’s worked so hard to be. Back to boxing.
And man. Will you look at that speed. Will you look at those arms. Will you look at that energy surrounding her, even after having lost her match. She wins.