Boxing and religion recently went head-to-head in the ring in Wales with the case of Sikh fighter Aaron Singh making the news. But a rule that undermined Welsh boxing’s aim for an inclusive sport had been troubling them for some time, writes Owen Morgan.
The Welsh Amateur Boxing Association (WABA) has an ambition to become one of the most proactive, progressive and successful sporting governing bodies, not only in Wales, but across the world.
The board was in the news earlier this summer when Sikh boxer Aaron Singh called for the rule forcing amateur boxers in Wales to fight clean shaven to be scrapped.
Singh claimed in June that the rule – adopted by all but a few nations across the globe – prevented him from competing because shaving his beard off was against his religion.
But Welsh boxing was already well on the way to being in Singh’s corner. By this time the association was halfway through the process towards the nation scrapping the rule imposed globally by the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA).
Welsh boxing chairman Derek McAndrew feels the fact his association had beaten most countries to the punch over the controversial rule is an indication of its forward thinking ambitions.
McAndrew said the WABA had been uncomfortable with the rule for some time and had approached AIBA for clarification. They wanted to join only three other nations in the world who had dropped the rule for their domestic competitions.
“We had been looking at this for some time,” says McAndrew. “It was never an easy decision for Welsh boxing, simply because the rule concerned is an AIBA rule and we are obliged as a national governing body to abide by the rules of the organisation we are affiliated to.
“That said, I was always uncomfortable with the rule as chairman of Welsh Boxing simply because I believed it wasn’t inclusive.
“Somebody, sooner or later, would take umbrage, for example the Sikh community, and that could escalate to potentially all sorts of problems.
“So, I then engaged with Mike Loosemore, who is the medical officer for AIBA. I wrote to Mike and said ‘just tell me what the medical issues are with this rule?’, and, he came back and said, ‘there are none’.
“If you think about it, professional boxers box with beards, and in rugby, beards are par for the course.
“I suppose when this rule was first put forward, the concern was there was a potential issue, particularly with stubble, if you happened to have a cut. But that’s just as likely in rugby as it is in boxing.”
The WABA decided to make an official approach by letter to the chief executive of AIBA.
McAndrew says: “We wrote to them saying ‘we’re uncomfortable with this rule’, and we fear that sooner or later someone could sue us. What would the AIBA situation be if we got rid of the rule?
“They came back and said we support you in that we want Welsh boxing and other national federations to be spending their money on developing the sport rather than defending potential court cases.
“So, that gave us a clear indication that they would not sanction us in any way if we changed the rule. All that took time, as I am sure you will appreciate.”
With the information which had been gathered at their fingertips, the WABA board discussed the proposition for the first time in May of this year.
By July, the WABA had reversed the clean shaven rule. The new regulations came into effect on August 1 in time for the start of the new domestic boxing season in September.
McAndrew adds: “Eventually we got all this information, I think it was around mid-July that the board met and took the decision that the only way forward was to remove the clean shaven rule.
“This would be good progress for us as far as inclusivity was concerned, which is really important to us.”
Singh – a 20-year-old student at Cardiff University – has welcomed the new stance.
He says: “I am grateful and glad they have taken the time to come to a decision and made the right one.
“Young Sikhs growing up will now be able to pursue the sport of boxing and maybe even have a career in it. More diversity in the sport will only help Welsh boxing.”
Jasveer Singh of the Sikh Press Association, has echoed those thoughts and says: “We can only applaud Welsh Boxing for making this change.
“Welsh boxing has a great history of producing some of the very best in the sport; from Jimmy Wilde to Joe Calzaghe, and Sikh history is steeped with a lineage of great warriors.
“It is beneficial for both communities to see the opportunity to participate in boxing competition in Wales open up for Sikhs.”
Even though Wales and the other countries that allow bearded fighters may be in a minority around the world, the Welsh association feel they are now on the right side of the argument as they look to grow the sport among all communities.
“We are not the only nation that has removed the clean shaven rule,” says McAndrew.
— BBC Wales News (@BBCWalesNews) July 2, 2019
“Our colleagues in England, Canada and New Zealand have joined in the same process.
“We believe we have taken the right decision. It’s right for our sport. There are people within the sport who may disagree, and we absolutely respect that.
“There are people who have been around in the sport a long time who believe it shouldn’t change, but sometimes you have to. We want as many people as possible to be able to compete in the sport.”
The chairman says his association, and its member clubs, have been making great strides within all communities across Wales, making the sport as accessible, diverse and inclusive as possible.
“Boxing is a sport which is able to do that. The wider the audience we attract, the more impact we can have on all communities,” says McAndrew.
Welsh boxing is currently going through a purple patch, both inside and outside of the ring and McAndrew is keen to build on the current success.
“Our message to everyone is come and join Welsh boxing,” he says. “We are enjoying the most successful time for Welsh boxing ever, and I’m even talking going back to the 1920s and 1930s.
“At the Commonwealth Games last year, we had the biggest medal haul ever, the most gold medals ever, and we were recognised by the Welsh Government and Sport Wales as being a main contributor to the Commonwealth Games effort.
This month, the Welsh Amateur Boxing Association will decide on whether a ruling that amateur fighters in Wales must be clean shaven is discriminatory. Sikh boxer Aaron Singh said the rule prevents him from competing because of his Sikh faith. https://t.co/eUdtOCbByD
— Sikh Coalition (@sikh_coalition) July 4, 2019
“Go back four or five years and that simply wasn’t the case. Welsh amateur boxing in 2012 was described as not fit for purpose.
“The board has changed that brilliantly and we are now recognised as a really sound sport financially, with great governance. We have some wonderful people doing some wonderful work.
“And there’s more to come. We know that we’ve still got work to do, we have just had an exercise to create a strategic plan. We aim to be the most successful governing body of any sport, not just in Wales, but in the world.
“We have got big ambitions, we understand totally how much work we have to do, but we are moving in the right direction and we are getting there.
“The days when you simply concentrated on what you did in the boxing ring are gone. Of course that is important, but the governance and the professionalism and the integrity around that is also so important to us.”