Pride without prejudice

 

PROFILE KATIE TAYLOR:Modest and softly spoken, Katie Taylor has reaffirmed her place among world champions, boosting pride and ambition yet again in Irish boxing

NOT FOR THE first time in Irish sport a female athlete has conquered the world. For some years it was Sonia O'Sullivan on the track and, fleetingly, swimmer Michelle de Bruin mastering pools around the world. Now Katie Taylor has quietly stepped up to reaffirm her place - and that of Ireland - at the top of women's amateur boxing as the World Amateur Lightweight Champion.

Taylor's rise has been meteoric. Up to as recently as 2004 she wasn't receiving any funding from the Irish Sports Council. (The amount of funding is often an indicator of what level governing bodies believe their athletes have reached.) But that has all changed in the past two years and she has come to learn how to adjust to and balance the growing attention she has received as European and World trophies continue to fall into her lap.

Not only has Taylor now set an example of how to perform under extreme pressure by winning her second World Championship in China last week, but in the often ego-driven world of elite sport she has also set standards in modesty with her quietly spoken, no-fuss charm.

Taylor is the polar opposite of the trash-talking professional and despite her now complete dominance in the world of lightweight boxing, she has never been anything other than the retiring, reluctant champion.

If another string to her bow were needed to convey the sweep of Taylor's physical ability, the 22-year-old from Bray, who plays soccer for St Catherine's, is also a member of the Republic of Ireland soccer team with over 40 senior caps.

"She is a tremendous competitor and whether it is football or boxing she will always give 100 per cent commitment," said Irish football team manager Noel King.

Few who have worked closely with Taylor have come away thinking anything other than that she is an unusual amalgam of physical talent and incredible psychological strength. The combination of the two is what separates her from the rest.

"If she hadn't been brought up in football and boxing," quipped an Olympic official, "we could have put her in a boat as a partner with (Olympic rower) Sinéad Jennings."

At the 2007 men's boxing World Championships in Chicago Taylor was invited to take part in a demonstration bout against Canadian fighter Katie Dunn, a three-time Pan-American light welterweight champion and twice a World Championship light welterweight bronze medallist. At more than half a stone lighter than her opponent, Taylor was at a clear disadvantage, one that would not have been tolerated in a strictly official competition.

To the astonishment of the crowd, the Irish girl stopped the Canadian in the first round on the Mercy Rule at 15-0. This rule is exactly what it seems. If an opponent is being clearly beaten by a large margin, the fight is terminated. This rule has since been removed from official competitions.

More recently, the focus during the boxing event at this year's Olympic Games in Beijing settled on Taylor because women's boxing is not part of the Olympic schedule. For some years now a campaign has been slowly burning to change this. Boxing is the only sport in the Olympics that does not have a gender balance and in these times of equality and political correctness, it remains a source of embarrassment for the image-conscious top brass of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

If women's boxing does become part of the schedule for the 2012 games in London, a decision that is likely to be made next autumn, then Taylor will travel as Ireland's brightest medal prospect. She is, after all, three times European Champion, twice World Champion and at the recent World Championships was voted the best boxer at the tournament. In layman's terms, she was chosen by her own as the best female amateur boxer in the world.

Her story is remarkable in many ways, not least of all because unlike most other Irish athletes Taylor has set the benchmark globally in her sport.

The argument against women's boxing having the same credibility as the men, or, being admitted to the Olympic Games has generally been that it lacks depth.

For those on the inside that idea is one steeped in the prejudice and paradigms of another era. And the history here is important. Ninety years of gender prejudice and breathtaking sexism are the reasons the sport was originally retarded and prevented from growing.

Spurious arguments for what were firmly-held intolerances, ranging from the supposed morality of women hitting each other to their different and inferior physiology have been trotted out over the years but they have all been slowly discredited.

Doubtlessly women's boxing is in a state of recovery. But knocking it for that reason seems almost as bad as the tardy treatment that put it there initially and also belies the Irish fighter's outstanding talent. Taylor has reached where she is despite efforts to hold back the sport's growth, making her position in Ireland, at the very least, pioneering.

Women's boxing was a demonstration event at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis but largely disappeared until 1994 when the international amateur association recognised it. Since then it has had to struggle hard against convention to get noticed.

A year before official recognition, a young would-be boxer, Dallas Malloy, challenged the USA boxing by-laws in a federal court. Those laws said she could not box even though her dream, like that of Taylor's, was to box in the Olympic Games. That could only be achieved by being a member of USA Boxing.

The lawsuit was due to go to trial in December of that year. But that May a court injunction nullifying the USA's ban until the trial took place was put in place. That was enough to break the ban and Malloy was finally allowed to legally box. It not only opened what was potentially the biggest market but finally gave women a legal and equal footing in the sport for the first time.

COACHED AT THE St Fergal's boxing club in Bray by her father Peter (who was the 1986 Irish senior lightweight champion) Katie came to notice when she boxed in the first officially sanctioned women's bout in Ireland against 16-year-old Alanna Audley from Belfast. She was 15 years old at the time. Shortly after that her football career also took off, graduating through the under-17 and under-19 international levels before joining the senior team.

In 2006, at around the time she was winning European boxing titles, she played in three World Cup qualifying matches against Russia, Switzerland and the USA, winning Player of the Match against the Swiss.

TYPICALLY, WHEN SHE WENT to UCD, she didn't tell anyone in the university administration of her athletic ability but entered purely on the strength of her Leaving Cert results. Both her boxing and football ability could have easily won her a sports scholarship. There was no fanfare. "I don't even think they knew she was there," said her father Peter. Because of her time commitments and success in both sports, she has for now, abandoned her health and leisure course.

She still plays both sports seriously but if push came to shove she has stated that she would opt for the "sweet science" of boxing over "the beautiful game" of football. Financially she survives on grants from the Irish Sports Council and is currently on the top level (or World Class level) of funding, worth €40,000 a year.

This year, because of her win in China, she will win a Performance Incentive Payment (PIP) which will be a minimum of €10,000 on top of the €40,000.

That will make her one of the top-funded athletes in Ireland.

The wait now until next year's Olympic decision will be fraught and if women's boxing is permitted to become part of the schedule for the London Olympic Games, Taylor can expect her boxing career to get tougher.

As the bigger and better-funded countries step up their efforts to produce women champions and rush to develop potential Olympic medal winners, so too will the Irish girl's competition increase.

Those who have worked closely with her say that her head is "wrecked" by constantly being asked about the Olympics and what chance her sport has of being accepted. It is, of course, something outside of her control, a place in the world of boxing she has rarely ever had to visit.

CV: Katie Taylor

Who is she?Katie Taylor, boxer, footballer, champion.

Why is she in the news?Became the top women's amateur boxer in the world last week.

Most likely to say:"I'd prefer to hang with friends than go on the nine o'clock news."

Least likely to say:"I'm the best bit of stuff for years, where's the cameras?"

Most appealing characteristics:modesty, understatement, style.

Least appealing characteristic:Far too much talent in one lightweight body.