Women's boxing is coming home. Nearly 300 years after Elizabeth Wilkinson, known to her many fans as the Cockney Championess, ventured up west to Oxford Circus to punch, maul and even kick her rival Martha Jones into submission in the first recorded fight of its kind, female pugilists are to be welcomed into the permanent Olympic fold – beginning right back where it all started.
Yesterday at a meeting in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee agreed that women's boxing should be included at the 2012 Games in London, ending its anomaly as the only one of the Olympic disciplines without female competitors. The decision, which came as golf and rugby sevens were given the nod for the 2016 Olympics, was welcomed in the world of sport, although it was condemned by doctors and head-injury charities who feared it would encourage more people to try it.
The IOC president Jacques Rogge, himself a former boxing doctor, said it was time to acknowledge the tremendous strides made over the past five years. "It is a great addition to the Games," he said.
Women boxing hopefuls, who have long battled an entrenched chauvinism in their chosen pursuit, reacted with unabashed delight at the prospect of competing at the highest level. Campaigners for women's sport and fitness celebrated the "long hard fight" for equality while pointing out that there was still some way to go, with men still able to compete for dozens more gold medals than women. Even British boxer Amir Khan, a former Olympic silver medallist, while re-iterating his long-held views that the canvas was no place for women, said patriotism would outweigh his concerns. "Deep down I think women shouldn't fight. That's my opinion. When you get hit it's very painful. Women can get knocked out." But he added: "I am going to be supportive. I'll be cheering on British fighters and hoping they win the medals."
Female boxing in Britain was banned for 116 years until 1996, when the Amateur Boxing Association agreed to lift the veto. However the British Medical Association has made repeated calls to end all forms of the sport in the wake of 140 ringside tragedies, including two women, since 1990. Doctors have highlighted the problems specific to women boxers, such as fat necrosis, in which part of the breast tissue dies and becomes a hard lump after being repeatedly punched.
But proponents such as Jane "The Fleetwood Assassin" Couch have taken on opponents every step of the way. Ms Couch had to resort to the courts in 1998 to be allowed access to the canvas on the same terms as men. Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood helped raise the profile of the sport in the blockbuster film Million Dollar Baby. The arrival of the greatest of them all – Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila "She-Bee Stinging" Ali – in the ring has helped recruit a generation of new fans, not least when she took on Joe Frazier's daughter Jacqui "Sister Smoke" for a fourth and hard-fought encounter between the two most famous boxing families in the world. Mass popularity has helped counter IOC objections that women's boxing was of only limited appeal.
There are some 650 women boxers in the UK alone compared to just 50 in 2005. Many have come to the sport through "boxercise" fitness classes or other contact disciplines. The inclusion looks likely to add to Team GB's potential medal haul in 2012, with at least half a dozen homegrown podium hopefuls. One is Nicola Adams, 26, second in the world in the bantamweight division.
During the recent European Union Championships in Bulgaria, British boxers Savannah Marshall, Natasha Jonas and Sharon Holford all took gold in their respective classes and Hannah Behanny and Lucy O'Connor won bronze. Thirty-six female fighters are expected to compete in London. To make room, one of the 11 men's weight divisions – light flyweight – will be dropped, although men will still outnumber women.
The decision to recommend golf for a return to the Olympics for the first time in 115 years evokes the prospect of Tiger Woods competing for Olympic gold in 2016. The US superstar golfer lobbied hard on behalf of the game and the world's top 15 players will automatically qualify.
First Person: Nicola Adams
‘It’s not about aggression, but about performance’
It has been a long haul. Women should be allowed to do any sport they want. I don't mind people saying they don't like boxing but I don't like it when they try and stop me doing it. I'm over the moon at the IOC's decision and am looking forward to bringing home a medal. When you hear comments like those made by Amir Khan it just makes you want to do it even more.
I was young when I began, it was just something fun to do. After a year the coach asked me if I had ever thought about going into a competition because I was really good. He couldn't find me any other girls to box until I was 17 but after that I was away.
We train really hard six days a week. There is running in the morning then I work on fitness in the afternoon and in the evening it is sparring. That is quite a lot of training for just four two-minute rounds which is all we are allowed to do. We fight under the same rules as men. You can wear breast protectors but the chest is not a target area.
We have got to where we are so far with no Olympic funding so this will really help us and the sport grow. It will also help us compete with other countries such as Russia who have been taking women's boxing seriously for a long time now. There will be rivalry with the men over who gets the most golds – but that will inspire us.
I love training. But the real thrill is getting into a ring and knowing that the crowd is there to watch you box. It feels like you are performing. It is not about the aggression but about people seeing you can do it. It is such a good feeling and it will be unbelievable in the Olympics to know that you are doing it for your country – that you are the person leading the way and bringing the medals home.
My heroes are Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Ali was so flashy and had this amazing footwork, while Sugar Ray was such a fun-loving character who had this amazing heart and courage. They were both incredible people and both won Olympic gold medals.
Nicola Adams, 26, won the silver medal in the bantamweight division at the 2008 World Boxing Championships in ChinaReuse content