Women's boxing a huge success
LONDON -- The score going into the fourth and final round was close, closer than the Irish fans crammed into the dimly lit standing-room-only areas would have liked it to be. They looked down at the ring pooled in light at the center of the room where the inaugural women's Olympic boxing event was being contested and let out a long, throaty roar as Katie Taylor came out of her corner.
They were there for their Katie, the 26-year-old former soccer and Gaelic football player and four-time world champion in the lightweight class.
A small girl standing near the jammed seats in the press section clapped her hands on either side of her face and stared wide-eyed and straight ahead in the way kids do when their entire being is consumed by one wish.
"KAY-TEE! KAY-TEE! KAY-TEE!" the fans chanted. They sang and stomped their feet. The rafters shook.
The round ended. The fans waited and murmured. They are not casual fans of boxing, either. When the announcer called out the first score -- 10 -- without a name, they did the math based on what they'd seen and knew Taylor had beaten Russia's Sofya Ochigava to win Ireland's first Olympic gold medal in any sport in 16 years.
It was a singular moment in sport, seeing whole families and groups of boisterous men and couples, ages infant to elderly, stream into the ExCel arena with painted faces and dyed hair and jesters' hats and flags draped over their shoulders, all in the same orange-white-and-green color scheme, to cheer for a woman in a one-on-one contact sport.
Granted, Olympic boxing isn't as violent as its professional counterpart. But there was a sense of a taboo evaporating in London, partly because of Taylor's stature and the adoration her fans displayed, partly because the overall speed and strength and reflexes and, yes, grace exhibited by the champions among this group of women could make a convert out of the most hard-hearted traditionalist.
The sport was introduced to the Olympic program in a somewhat tentative way, with 12 boxers apiece in three weight classes as opposed to 10 classes of up to 30 men apiece. (The rules are different as well; the women fight four rounds of two minutes apiece, while the men go three of three.)
If anyone had concerns about how the sport would be received, they got answers. Here is what happened: Taylor cemented her status as an icon. Pint-sized, charismatic Nicola Adams, a smiling sharpshooter who boxes for a police community club, beat the reigning world champion to win the flyweight title for Great Britain. And 17-year-old Claressa Shields of Flint, Mich., wore down a Russian middleweight twice her age and talked engagingly -- the way a gifted and uninhibited teenager should -- about how she thought the gold medal might change her life.
"I haven't been able to think past Aug. 9,'' said Shields, who threw her head back and laughed with delightful abandon as she waited for the medal ceremony. "I haven't been at home a lot, but I know I must have a lot of publicity. I might go in history books. People want to look at me as inspiration. I might have 2,000 new followers when I get back on Twitter.
"There's a lot of stuff that's gonna change. I'm going to be able to help my family out. And I got a gold medal that I can wear every day, by my choice, and it's mine.''
These narratives go above and beyond the typical quirky-soft-and-fuzzy Olympic feature stories. Adams represents a nation that banned women from boxing until 1996. Even then, authorities balked at licensing them until they waged a legal fight that featured the same Victorian-era arguments once used to keep women from playing stick-and-ball sports. Numerous prominent former male boxers and industry figures have opposed it over the years. Shields' own father initially resisted it.
Enough cultures around the world had to be ready for this to happen, and the host nation's attitude was also key for this debut. The ringside presence of British prime minister David Cameron at Adams' semifinal and the embrace legendary boxer Barry McGuigan of Northern Ireland gave Taylor after she won were significant in that regard.
Inevitably, some will ask whether the success of women's boxing here will bring swarms of new participants and raise the profile of the sport. As an individual sport, boxing doesn't face the same challenges internationally as, for example, women's ice hockey, where growing strong teams in all regions of the world is a challenge and top-shelf competition is still limited to a group of usual suspects. There are boxers everywhere and many of them seem more than willing to see the other half of the population duke it out.
For now, it should be enough for the women to have proven they belong on the biggest stage every four years.