We should be promoting sports that aren't effectively formalised pub brawls. Photo: Getty
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Is it time to ban violent sport?

There is no glory in setting out to cause injury to another human being.

Last week Lance Ferguson-Prayogg died after a white-collar boxing event in Nottingham.  White-collar boxing is a strange modern phenomenon, a violent battle for which graduates only need apply, where MMA meets MBA.

The sport started in New York in the 1980s (well you didn’t think I was going to say Sweden did you?). Bouts now take place around the world including in the UK, with one London club boasting over 1,000 members. Princes William and Harry and Kate Middleton have been to watch charity white collar boxing events staged by their high society chums.

Sadly, “it’s for charity” has become the ultimate 21st-century excuse for things we wouldn’t put up with otherwise: topless calendars, demands for Facebook clicks and unlicensed boxing. What next? Cock fighting for Comic Relief?

The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) has been making their opposition to unlicensed boxing known for over a decade.

It is outrageous that you can do this without a licence but is it any less offensive that you can do this with a licence? The BBBoC’s main concerns are that participants do not receive MRI head scans and that there is no upper age limit for participation. I can’t help thinking if a scan showed brain material present in the skull, that’d be a good reason not to allow anyone to punch it. The fact is that from Davey Moore to Kim Duk-koo to James Murray there is no getting away from death as a side effect of a sport where the whole objective is to render your opponent unconscious.

White collar boxing, along with the Ultimate Fighting Championship or cage-fighting, is a recent phenomenon. But the principle behind them strikes me as grossly outdated. We need to draw a line between sport and violence. Yes, sport often carries a risk of injury and there is something noble about taking that risk. But there should be no glory in setting out to cause injury to another human being.

As a feminist I’m all about equality, but that doesn’t always mean taking the status quo for men and giving it to women. In 2005 in Denver, Colorado, Becky Zerlentes became the first woman known to have died from injuries sustained during a sanctioned boxing match. This is not the equality I want.

I won’t deny that I was initially swept along with the surge of enthusiasm for letting women participate in Olympic boxing. But should boxing be in the Olympics at all? I’d rather we focused our efforts on the other gender-exclusionary sport: the lack of a men’s synchronised swimming category.

The Olympic authorities say that male synchronised swimming is not popular enough. This is like saying “you can get in the lifeboat when you dry off”. Or (and as a comedian I’ve heard this one a few times) “you’d be perfect for our TV show, but you’re not famous enough”.

Let’s use the power of the Olympics to promote the sports that aren’t effectively formalised pub brawls. Or bring it into line with fencing and many other martial arts by using modern technology to detect contact without the need for concussion. This wouldn’t stop you or I going to the gym and punching a bag, learning self-defence or high-kicking our way through a pile of breeze blocks.

When I mention to friends my idea that we should put an end to boxing and cage-fighting they jokingly warn me to focus on annoying people who aren’t so strong and prone to violence. It’s a fair point but also exactly the one I want to make. If we want a society where the threat of violence isn’t a factor in decision-making, we need everyone in our society to understand viscerally that violence is always wrong.

Please do not bother trying to tell me that boxing and “fight” clubs are where the young men, and now gloriously equal women, of Britain “get their aggression out”. This is profoundly unscientific. It’s like suggesting Suarez be given a lump of raw meat to gnaw on at half-time. Exercising regularly makes people want to exercise more. Which is great if you’re a bag-puncher or even a synchronised swimmer.

The big money professional fights would go overseas. But are we really involved with violence for the money? The 21st century deserves a culture free from violence and the glorification of violence. We are better off without these things. Bye then. And please take Luis Suarez with you.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. She is on Twitter @Cruella1 and her website is www.katesmurthwaite.co.uk.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot