Curiosity, then cheers, as Games' first female boxers enter the Olympics ring
It took a while for the crowd to warm up, but by the end of the session women's boxing had proved a big hit
It was shortly after 1.30pm yesterday at the ExCel Centre, the lone Olympic venue that smells like a beer cellar, that two tiny, skinny women touched gloves and then started hitting each other for the first time.
The women arrived with their boxing gloves and protective chest plates and another gender barrier came crashing down.
After a contest or two (we call them contests in the amateur business and not fights), the 10,000 people seemed to have lost their initial curiosity and were just screaming for the two boxers to hit each other.
"The female boxers train with the men, spar with the men and live with the men at the camps –the men have forgotten that they are women," Robert McCracken, Britain's boxing's performance director, said.
And so history was made and the first winner of an Olympic boxing event was from Russia, one of the sport's best nations. Elena Savelyeva, a veteran of three World Championships with a medal in every shade, did seem to confuse the crowd with her skills. Savelyeva is a boxer, not a slugger and many in the crowd seemed disappointed for a few seconds.
Thankfully, the next contest set the agenda for the rest of the night when Venezuela's Karlha Magliocco started slugging and then India's greatest boxer, Mary Kom, stepped in and went toe-to-toe with a Polish woman. The crowd, by 2pm, was booing, roaring and cheering like a group of true boxing diehards as head guards came loose and faces turned dark with bruising.
Women's boxing was invited to join the Olympic movement in the summer of 2009 but the news was bittersweet; the celebrations seemed to ignore the fact that just three of the 13 competitive women's weights had been included. It meant that hundreds of top-quality boxers, veterans of World and European championships since 1999, had to gain or lose as much as 20lbs to make one of the three weights.
A directive a year later ordering the fighters to wear skirts was kicked into touch. "That's never going to happen," Britain's flyweight Nicola Adams said at the time.
The loss of so many weights was particularly cruel to Kom, a five-time world champion, because she has had to move up two weights just to qualify for the lowest Olympic weight. Yesterday at the ExCel it sounded like 10,000 knew her tale and were urging her on. It worked. She won and fights a Tunisian next.
The women's boxing continues today when all three British boxers fight for a medal in the quarter finals.
Natasha Jonas, from Liverpool, won yesterday and meets Ireland's Katie Taylor at lightweight. Taylor has won four World and five European titles and refused a six-figure sum to turn professional a couple of years ago. The Bray woman is sporting royalty on the Dublin circuit, rubbing shoulders with politicians, poets and Bono, but at the ExCel she is just another boxer.
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