Peruvians have gone mad for the boxer Kina Malpartida, an unlikely sports figure in this South American country where soccer, even if not played well, is king. You see, Malpartida is a woman but she is idolized by the traditionally macho men of Peru because there is no equivalent male athlete in the country.
Malpartida, known as "Dynamite" to her fans, is the World Boxing Association's female super featherweight champion. On June 20, she successfully defended her world title in Lima against a Brazilian opponent, Halana dos Santos. She drew a packed house for the bout, which was a feat of its own. The tickets were costly in a country where the monthly minimum wage is around $200 and the venue seemed better suited for a circus than an international title fight as vendors hawked caramel apples and cotton candy instead of beer and pretzels. TV ratings, however, define the story in immense dimensions, at least for Peru. The Malpartida-Dos Santos bout attracted the largest single TV audience in the country's viewing history. At one point, two-thirds of the viewing audience was watching the fight.
Malpartida, however, is not the only woman to be hailed as an athletic superstar in Peru. It seems that majority of Peru's sports stars are female. For example, she is now the 76th name to be added to the "cornice of fame" at the National Stadium in the Peruvian capital Lima the 39th woman to receive the honor. She has thus widened even more the advantage for women athletes in a country where men take sports very seriously but women win medals and championships. "It is a strange phenomenon. There are few countries in the world where the most respected athletes, the role models, all happen to be women," says Congresswoman Gabriela Perez de Solar.
The congresswoman knows something about this, having starred on the country's scrappy women's volleyball team that unexpectedly won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics. It remains the best effort by a Peruvian team in Olympic sports in any team sport and the achievement catapulted its members to fame. Perez del Solar is one of two members of the 1988 team currently in Congress. Captain Cecilia Tait served in the previous 2001-2006 term. She was also inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts a few years back. Despite the adulation of the volleyball team, it remains the preserve of women. Peruvian men don't play volleyball.
They do play soccer. But that doesn't mean much. The success of women's volleyball came as Peru's men's national soccer team began a downward slide that has not stopped. The country has not qualified for a World Cup tournament since 1982 and became the first team worldwide to be eliminated from competition for the 2010 cup in South Africa. There are talented individual players on the squad, a number playing abroad, but they simply do not excel as a team.
And there is the matter of scandals many scandals. Several top players, including the former national captain, were removed from the men's team last year after allegedly partying all night just days before facing off against neighboring Ecuador in what was a must-win match to stay in the running for the World Cup. Ecuador, predictably, ran circles around Peru.
Another unexpected female star is Sofia Mulanovich, the first Peruvian (and Latin American) to win an Association of Professional Surfers' world championship. Her name was engraved on the National Stadium a few years back. Mulanovich is also highly popular, but following in her footsteps is limited by a number of factors, including the basic necessity of being close to surfing waves.
Malpartida, however, is a new kind of pioneer. She is becoming an inspiration to both young men and women who want to follow in her footsteps. One young amateur boxer, Rocio Gaspar, calls herself "Kinita" or "Little Kina" fought on the undercard on Malpartida's fight night and won her three-round bout. Meanwhile, Jonathan Maicelo, Peru's rising male boxing star, who was also on the undercard, says Malpartida might be the best thing that ever happened to the country's boxing. He told reporters, after defeating Mexico's Javier Gallegos, that Malpartida's fame might get local sporting authorities to recognize that soccer is not the only sport in Peru. "Maybe now people at the [national sports institute] will take notice of us." Now, if only he could learn to box like a girl.