Havana, Cuba – As acrid sweat fills a dank boxing gym in east Havana, water drips through a crack in the ceiling.
Next to a small puddle beside the ring, women wearing protective padding spar while others pummel a fraying punchbag or do sit-ups under a fading poster of boxing legend Teófilo Stevenson, who won three Olympic gold medals during the Cold War.
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An amateur boxing powerhouse, Cuba has won 41 Olympic boxing golds – second only to the USA. At the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021, the Caribbean island won four boxing golds. But so far, it has only been men that have brought back boxing glory.
In a nation where entrenched gender roles are hard to shake, women had been allowed to train but until recently, were banned from entering the ring to compete or even to spar.
That changed in December when the Cuban Boxing Federation lifted its prohibition on women’s boxing and announced the creation of a national women’s team.
While it typically takes talented athletes many years of training to qualify for the Olympics, the women on the Cuban national team – some of whom only put on boxing gloves for the first time seven months ago – are trying to make it to the Paris Olympics next year.
“Before my dream was that they approved women’s boxing,” featherweight Karen Cantillo told Al Jazeera at the gym.
“Now that it’s approved, my dream has changed: I want to be a champion, win medals, and make history.”
‘A conquest for women’
When female boxers competed in the 2012 London Olympics for the first time, Cuban women could only watch as their male compatriots brought back golds. It was the same at Río de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo 2020, held in 2021 due to the COVID pandemic.
Over the last decade, Cuban authorities’ decision to prevent female boxers from competing became more incongruous; not only because the Cuban state promotes itself a vanguard of women’s rights and equality, but because the National Sports Institute (INDER) had long allowed women to compete at the Olympics in a range of other contact sports such as wrestling, taekwondo and judo.
Almost all the countries affiliated with the International Boxing Association (IBA) practise women’s boxing – but not Cuba.
The president of Cuba’s Boxing Federation, Alberto Puig de la Barca, told Al Jazeera that the ban on women’s boxing was rooted in safety concerns.
“There were worries about whether feminine boxing could damage women’s bodies, above all when they are pregnant,” he said, adding that the authorities carried out investigations lasting years to ensure athlete’s safety would be protected.
Female boxers must take periodical pregnancy tests now the ban is lifted and women must wear padding for protection.
But for many, the underlying reason for the foot-dragging was entrenched machismo culture and a paternalistic culture of overprotecting women.
In 2009, for example, the year the International Olympic Committee approved women’s boxing, the head coach of Cuba’s men’s team Pedro Roque told journalists that “Cuban women are there to show their beautiful faces, not to take punches.”
At a recent training session, Cantillo said the ban was unjust.
“I’ve always thought that while men are stronger than us physically, us women are stronger mentally. So, I never understood why we weren’t allowed [to box],” Cantillo said.
Her sparring partner Melany de la Caridad Girado agreed.
“They didn’t want us to box – this was seen as a sport for men, and women were supposed to be at home,” she said.
But frustration turned to ecstasy when, in December, authorities announced that the ban on women’s boxing would be lifted and that they would hold trials for a national women’s team.
Lives were transformed almost overnight. Flyweight Elianni de la Caridad Garcia, who had until then been working in a primary school kitchen, “jumped for joy” when she heard the news.
“We’d been waiting for this for years,” García said, adding, “This is a conquest for women.”
Team captain Lianet Gomez, a lightweight, took up boxing just one week before the national team trials. “It was the first time I put on the gloves,” she said the athlete, who until December represented the national karate team.
And since the state lifted the ban and started showing women’s boxing on TV, public perceptions seem to have changed.
Cantillo, who had trained for years in a boxing gym to keep fit but had not fought competitively, said people used to criticise her in the street, telling her that “the sport is for men, it’s not feminine.”
She said this no longer happens: “Since they approved it, those negative comments have stopped.”
The 12 women that made the national team – two in each weight category – have now given up their day jobs and, like all elite Cuban athletes, receive a salary – although their living conditions are spartan: the team sleeps in bunk beds and must wash with buckets of cold water.
The team made their international debut this April in the ALBA Games, a tournament open to mainly left-wing Latin American and Caribbean nations.
The top six fighters went to the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador in June. They brought back two bronzes and a silver medal.
Featherweight Legnis Cala, 32, who went from housewife to silver medallist in the Central American and Caribbean Games in a few months, told Al Jazeera she thought she would make it to Paris.
But she must get gold or silver in the Pan American Games this October if she is to qualify.
“I’m already realising my dream by competing for my country in international events, representing the flag, and going on the podium with medals,” she said.