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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Irie vs. Petecio Olympic boxing final opens doors for Asian women

Japanese gold medalist expects 'more exposure' for female fighters

Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines, left, and Sena Irie of Japan congratulate each other after their final bout.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- At age 20, Sena Irie has already logged three milestones in Japanese sports history. The first woman to represent the country in Olympic boxing on Tuesday also became its third to win gold in the sport overall, and the second to do it on home soil.

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

Regardless of the outcome, the gold medal bout in the women's featherweight division was historic. Both Irie and Petecio were the first women from their countries to reach the final, opening new doors for female fighters in a sport perceived to be dominated by men.

"The media is now covering me and I think there will be more exposure for women's boxing," Irie said after the final. "Through that, I think women's boxing in Japan will become even more popular."

Boxing needs no help to gain popularity in the Philippines, where traffic stops and the crime rate drops every time Manny Pacquiao fights. A similar phenomenon happens when Filipino women reach the final in international beauty pageants.

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

Another Filipino boxer, Irish Magno, reached the second round of the women's flyweight division, while skateboarder Margielyn Didal placed seventh in the women's street final. Online celebrations of their success caused the hashtag #AbanteBabae, encouraging women to take the lead, to trend on Twitter.

In Japan, the hashtag #boxing was trending soon after Irie's win, with more than 82,000 tweets. The messages of support stood in contrast to pressure Irie and some other Japanese athletes received to withdraw from the unpopular Olympics.

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

Before the Games began, Irie was not shy about her goal. "I've been aiming for the gold medal and becoming 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 her participation in the Games would contribute to changing the "violent" perception of boxing. "There is a stereotypical image of female boxers," she said. "I want more people to know about the personal magnetism of the sport and boxers."

For Irie, the yearlong Olympic postponement due to COVID-19 became an "opportunity to become stronger." When the pandemic shut down her university last year, she went home to Tottori Prefecture, some 700 km away from Tokyo, to continue training. Irie said she trained with bags on her left arm to strengthen that jab, which helped take the wind out of Petecio on Tuesday.

Irie began boxing at age seven, inspired by the Japanese manga "Ganbare Genki," whose young protagonist is a boxer. But it was not until 2012 that competing in the Olympics became a possibility, when women's boxing was included in the program at that year's London Games.

"The Olympics are special in that the world will pay attention to it. The level of attention it gets is very different from other sports events," Irie told Nikkei.

Morinari Watanabe, a Japanese IOC member and chair of the boxing task force, said he is glad to see the improvement in 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.

Asked whether Irie had a hometown advantage with the judges, Petecio said, "I salute Sena. The respect we have for each other is the most important thing." The two boxers smiled and embraced as soon as the final bell rang.

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

Petecio also dedicated the fight to her coaches, Australian Don Abnett and Nolito Velasco, the brother of Onyok Velasco, silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Abnett and Velasco have two other Filipino boxers gunning for gold in Tokyo -- Eumir Marcial in the men's middleweight division and Carlo Paalam in the men's flyweight.

Winning Italy's 600th Olympic medal, Irma Testa celebrated her featherweight bronze medal as a landmark for women and girls in her country.

"It's the first ever medal for women's boxing [for Italy] and with that medal I can show young girls in Italy that boxing is also a sport for women, not just for men," Testa said at the medalists' news conference.

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