When Nicola Adams first put on boxing gloves at her local gym as a tiny schoolgirl of 12, bouts between two women were banned by the British Boxing Board of Control. They were too unstable, went the reasoning, on account of their menstrual cycles, and besides no one wanted to see a pretty girl get hit.
On August 9, 17 years later but not a great deal taller, Adams finally gave her response in the ring, emphatically defeating the Chinese world champion flyweight Ren Cancan to become the first woman ever to claim an Olympic gold medal in boxing. She had only gone to the gym that day because her mother had an aerobics class and could not find any childcare.
When the International Olympic Committee ruled in 2009 that women’s boxing would be in the London Games, the former world champion Amir Khan said he was against the move, saying: “When you get hit it can be very painful.” Yesterday he was at ringside, paying lavish tributes, with everyone else, to the skill and dexterity of the female fighters.
Once Olympics concludes, there is little question women’s boxing will be reckoned one of its great successes. It is not merely the supportive crowds the sport has drawn but the respect the competitors have commanded, among boxing ingenues and experienced sports devotees alike. As recently as March, the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) was threatening to force women boxers at the Games to compete while wearing skirts “to help distinguish them from the men”.
Immediately before Adams’s bout, Ching-Kuo Wu, the AIBA president, said the Rio Games would almost certainly see the number of divisions at which women could compete at the Games double from three to six. London’s women fighters, he said, were “heroes in boxing history”.
As Adams stood on the podium, the exclusion before now of women from the sport already seemed as ridiculous as the bar, until 1984, on their running the marathon. Did she think she had answered the sceptics, she was asked later? “It’s not me that’s answered them, it’s the crowds. They have been cheering as much for us as they have for the lads.”
Adams’s hopes that more women will go into boxing and will almost certainly be helped by her success at the Games — and the visibility of Britain’s other competitors at these Olympics, Natasha Jonas and Savannah Marshall. British women received £1m of funding in 2009 and Adams had a generous living allowance and the full support of the boxing set-up at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. Her success is likely to mean that funding is increased.
She said: “There’s an option of going professional, but I’m happy with the amateur game. Rio is definitely an option for me. It would be nice to see their opening ceremony. We haven’t yet had a double Olympic champion in boxing for the females. There’s definitely some motivation there.”