Olympic boxing final Irie vs Petecio opens doors for Asian women

TOKYO – At 20, Sena Irie has already achieved three milestones in the history of Japanese sport. The first woman to represent the country in Olympic boxing on Tuesday also became her third to win gold in all of the sport, and the second to do so at home.

Irie defeated Filipino world champion Nesthy Petecio, 29, by unanimous decision.

Whatever the outcome, the fight for the gold medal in the women’s featherweight division was historic. Irie and Petecio were both the first women from their country to reach the final, opening new doors for female fighters in a sport seen to be dominated by men.

“The media is covering me now and I think there will be more visibility for women’s boxing,” Irie said after the final. “Thanks to this, I think women’s boxing in Japan will become even more popular.”

Boxing doesn’t need any help to gain popularity in the Philippines, where the traffic stops and the crime rate drops every time Manny Pacquiao fights. A similar phenomenon occurs when Filipino women reach the finals of international beauty pageants.

But now women are gaining attention for their excellence in sports. Petecio and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz have so far won the country’s only two medals at these Games. Diaz won the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal in the women’s 55 kg event.

Another Filipino boxer, Irish Magno, reached the second round of the women’s flyweight division, while skater Margielyn Didal placed seventh in the women’s street final. The online celebrations of their success have made the #AbanteBabae hashtag, encouraging women to take the lead, become a trend on Twitter.

In Japan, the #boxing hashtag was all the rage shortly after Irie’s victory, with more than 82,000 tweets. The messages of support contrasted with the pressure received by Irie and other Japanese athletes to withdraw from the unpopular Olympics.

A person takes a photo during the Petecio-Irie fight in Tokyo. © Reuters

Before the start of the Games, Irie was not shy about reaching his goal. “I was aiming for the gold medal and I became No. 1 in the world,” she told Nikkei Asia in an interview last month. Irie won the last time she faced Petecio at the 2019 Asian Boxing Championships.

But beyond the gold medal, Irie hoped his participation in the Games would help change the perception of “violent” boxing. “There is a stereotypical image of female boxers,” she said. “I want more people to know about the personal magnetism of sports and boxers.”

For Irie, the postponement of the Olympics for a year due to COVID-19 has become an “opportunity to get stronger.” When the pandemic closed her university last year, she returned home to Tottori prefecture, some 700 km from Tokyo, to continue her training. Irie said she trained with sacks on her left arm to strengthen that jab, which took Petecio’s breath away on Tuesday.

Irie started boxing at the age of seven, inspired by the Japanese manga “Ganbare Genki”, in which the young protagonist is a boxer. But it wasn’t until 2012 that participation in the Olympics became a possibility, when women’s boxing was included on the program of the London Games that year.

“The Olympics are special as far as the world will pay attention to them. The level of attention they receive is very different from other sporting events,” Irie told Nikkei.

Morinari Watanabe, Japanese IOC member and Chairman of the Boxing Working Group, said he was happy to see improved gender equality in boxing.

“Boxing was often associated with violence, but the image is changing due to the participation of women. It’s more about tactics and elegance now,” Watanabe told Nikkei on Tuesday.

When asked if Irie had his hometown advantage with the judges, Petecio replied, “Hail Sena. The respect we have for each other is the most important thing.” The two boxers smiled and kissed as soon as the final bell rang.

Lesbian Petecio dedicated her silver medal to the LGBTQ community as well as to her family, her country and her best friend who died in February. Like Irie, she started boxing at the age of seven in her home province of Davao to help her farmer father and housewife mother support the family.

Petecio also dedicated the fight to his coaches, Australian Don Abnett and Nolito Velasco, the brother of Onyok Velasco, silver medalist at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Abnett and Velasco have two other Filipino boxers in search of. Gold in Tokyo – Eumir Marcial in the men’s middleweight division and Carlo Paalam in the men’s flyweight.

By winning Italy’s 600th Olympic medal, Irma Testa celebrated her featherweight bronze medal as a milestone for the women and girls of her country.

“This is the very first medal for women’s boxing [for Italy] and with this medal I can show young Italian girls that boxing is also a sport for women, not just for men, “Testa said at the medalists’ press conference.

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