James Lawton: The soap star looking to clean up at London 2012

Nicola Adams' days on 'Corrie' and 'Emmerdale' are gone. Her focus now is becoming the first woman to win boxing gold for GB

Olympic Park

If it should happen, God forbid, that the Olympic cauldron fails here tomorrow night, not the worst solution might be its replacement by the perpetual grin of Nicola Adams. It is one that over the years has blazed impressively enough in the background of soap operas like Coronation Street and Emmerdale, but that was before she stood on the brink of history.

Now as she considers the strong possibility of becoming Britain's first woman to win an Olympic boxing gold medal she glows.

She lights up the darkest corner of the athletes' village but, much more significantly, she shines a light on what not so long ago was a most ferocious, and obdurate, example of male chauvinism.

Women boxers were, infinitely more so than their sisters who played football or, still more scandalously, rugby, an offence against nature.

When they were finally given the green light to compete according to the basic rules of the Marquess of Queensberry, one respected commentator said that young, ill-advised girls were about to be wheeled in for the vicarious pleasure of "yobbos".

A boxing promoter put it even more bluntly. The girls, he suggested, would be doing no more than titillating the "sexual appetites" of male spectators.

The 29-year-old Adams was in her early teens at the time – and utterly unaffected by the tide of male prejudice. Last week some of it was put in a hard perspective by the heart-breaking failure of the Afghan woman Sadaf Rahimi to make it to these Olympics, a series of winning battles against the ferocious, frequently fatal sexism of her homeland finally faltering against the decision of the International Boxing Association that she had failed to reach the standard that would protect her from the possibility of injury in the company of boxers as accomplished as the European flyweight champion Adams. But then Adams also had to win her battles. She worked at as many as eight different jobs, including the building trade, before gaining the Lottery fund support that has finally carried her to within touching distance of Olympic gold.

The greatest threats to Adams come from China's double world champion Ren Cancan and the experienced Russian Elena Savelyeva, but she believes that her victory over the former earlier this year has given her a vital new level of confidence.

"I feel very close to my dream," she was saying yesterday, "and that is the happiest you can be in life. I would never let go of the idea that I could become a boxer at international standard – and I kept believing it when there was boxing on the television and my father told me to sit down when I got so excited I was bouncing around."

Adams' father had an educated appreciation of the old game and his daughter got to see on the television screen some of the legendary fighters who were performing before she was born.

Sugar Ray Leonard was one favourite, along with the original Sugarman, Ray Robinson, but there was no serious challenger to Muhammad Ali. The great man has appeared in London this week looking ever more reduced by illness and the residue of a career that went on too long, too punishingly. But as far as Adams is concerned, he will never lose his lustre.

"It is because of him that I'm here today," she declares. "I don't believe there has been anyone like him in all of sport. He had so much charisma inside and out of the ring. He had his flashy style, his shuffle – I really think he transcended the sport of boxing. People who didn't even watch boxing knew who Muhammad Ali was. I thought that was so great and it made me want to go into the ring and make people roar. It was a great thing he did and now I just want to follow him. I want to get the Olympic medal."

She says it with such enthusiasm, even joy, that it is hard to believe that there were times when her ambitions could scarcely have been more brittle. "People said I was wasting my time, but I never believed that. I knew that I was at home in a boxing ring, and it was always going to take a lot to stop me, but then when you are lying in bed for three months with a back injury, you sometimes wonder if you have reached the end of it.

"You just have to fight on and do what you can. The work as an extra, sitting in the Rovers Return or walking through Emmerdale, was enjoyable, but it was most important in that it kept me going before the funding arrived."

Adams has become the centrepiece of a British team which some believe can make an impressive impact through men like captain Tom Stalker, an engaging Merseysider who by the end of last year had worked his way to the No 1 international ranking at light welterweight, and the polished Yorkshire bantamweight Luke Campbell. However, it says much for the extent of her achievement in breaking through the old gender barrier that her male team-mates do not give the smallest hint of resentment over the much greater attention she receives.

"She is very talented," says the 25-year-old Campbell, "but what has impressed all of us is that she has just made herself part of the team. There are three women in the team (lightweight Natasha Jones from Liverpool and Hartlepool middleweight Savannah Marshall are the others) but there is absolutely no difference in the way we are approaching things. Naturally, everybody wants to enjoy the Olympic experience but not at the cost of medals."

The team manager Matthew Holt echoes the belief in a team that has carried itself beyond the jealousies that can come with unevenly distributed fame – and certainly that old theory that women have no right to step into the ring.

"There is enough glory for everyone at this level of our sport," says Holt. It is an impressive sentiment – and one beyond challenge after feeling the extraordinary warmth of a boxing woman's smile.

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