SAN DIEGO, August 5, 2012 – The final gender barrier in the Olympic Games was counted out today in London as the first ever women’s boxing competition got underway.
The honor of fighting the first round in Olympic history was decided by a random draw of the flyweight divison fighters. It went jointly to Elena Savelyeva of Russia and Hye Song Kim of North Korea, with Savelyeva becoming the first woman ever to win a bout in Olympic competition. Savelyeva won with a busy jab and strong combinations, saying it was a pleasure to make Olympic history.
Women will compete in three weight classes: flyweight (51 kilos / 112.4 pounds), lightweight (62 kilos / 132 pounds), and middleweight (75 kilos / 165 pounds). Women fight four two-minutes rounds, with a minute between rounds. The scoring system is the same for women as men, and it is complicated and not without controversy.
Among the hopefuls: three American women eager along with their sister competitors to introduce their sport and athleticism to the world. They know all eyes will be on them as ambassadors of the sport.
They include glamour girl Marlen Esparza in the flyweight division. The 23-year-old from Houston already has numerous TV commercials and endorsements with Nike and Cover Girl under her belt. The lightweight entrant is Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, a 28-year-old Seattle pipefitter by day. The youngest member of the U.S. boxing team male or female is 17-year-old high school student Claressa Shields (25-1) from Flint, Michigan in the middleweight division.
Underwood led off the American effort. Underwood drew world bronze medallist Natasha Jonas of Liverpool fighting for Great Britain. It was a tough draw for her first bout. Underwood came out strong, winning the first round. Jonas narrowly took the second round, and then got up to speed and handily won the last two rounds with good hooks that met their mark. Jonas was elated when the result was announced and so was the hometown crowd.
Underwood’s lightweight division is perhaps the toughest. The top seed is Ireland’s Katie Taylor, who was her nation’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies. Other serious contenders include Russia’s Sofya Ochigava, and now Jonas with her win.
Esparza and Shields have first round byes, so they will not fight until Monday in the quarterfinals.
The favorite in the flyweight division is India’s five-time world champion, the veteran mother of twins “Magifnicent Mary” Kom. Kom, coached by American Charles Atkinson. She is the only woman boxing for India and the only serious hope for India to win a medal in the London Olympics. Kom wept after making her Olympic debut today, 12 years after she defied her father’s wishes to pursue boxing. The five-time world champion won – and on her twins’ fifth birthday, no less.
In the middleweight division, London will be cheering for Savannah Marshall. The 26-year-old nicknamed the “Silent Assassin” because of her shyness outside the ring won Britain’s first ever women’s boxing title.
No matter the outcome for Underwood or any of the other women today, they can take pride in representing their sport with dedication, purpose and competitive spirit in its Olympic debut.
The fight to get women’s boxing into the Olympics was a long, hard one. Women’s boxing was banned in the Games’ home nation of Great Britain until 1996. Other countries including Cuba still refuse to send women boxers to the Olympics. But 23 teams have sent 36 groundbreaking athletes, eager not only to compete but to prove they belong in the sport.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) has been supportive of women’s boxing. But it raised eyebrows among the competitors when AIBA President Wu Ching-Kuo suggested that the fighters would be required to wear skirts in the ring. His reasoning: some fans can’t tell when the fighters are women because of the required headgear amateur boxers wear.
After the predictable uproar, the idea was left as optional, permitted but not mandated. Don’t expect to see many of the women buy into this, although Polish fighters wore skirts at last year’s European championships. It’s certainly no worse than some of the outrageous getups certain professional male boxers wear into the ring.
It is a backhanded compliment to the women athletes that the way they box is indistinguishable from the men. Still sexist, but after all the competitors have been through to get to this moment, this is an easily blocked punch and a weak one at that.
The tournament will run for five days, ending with the gold medal bouts on Thursday (5 a.m. Eastern Time on CNBC).
Associated Press contributed to this story.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She writes on professional cycling and covers the Sweet Science for Communities, along with other news in the sports world. Read more Ringside Seat in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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