LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — Women's boxing was a big hit in its first Olympics.
It could get even bigger in Rio.
The debut tournament got rave reviews from fans, boxers and Olympic officials who loved the sold-out crowds, evenly matched bouts and the emergence of stars on the international stage, including U.S. teenager Claressa Shields, Ireland's Katie Taylor and Britain's Nicola Adams.
IOC President Jacques Rogge says he's thrilled the competition removed any doubt of the sport's Olympic worthiness. AIBA President Wu Ching-Kuo is determined to at least double the Olympic field for the 2016 Games in Brazil.
And Taylor can't wait to see what happens over the next four years after these four days of history in the London ring.
"Hopefully there are a lot of young girls sitting at home watching this, and they will realize this is what they can work towards," said Taylor, who won gold in the lightweight final. "This is amazing for women's boxing."
Even in an Olympics featuring several milestone achievements for women, the boxing stood out.
Every session at ExCel arena pulsed with excitement, with each of Taylor's three fights turning into a celebration of Irish pride. Thousands of fans waved flags and wore elaborate green-and-orange outfits to cheer every punch thrown by the Bray Brawler, just the ninth gold medalist in Ireland's Olympic history.
The three British women's boxers got frenzied receptions, and the fans quickly realized Shields and Russian lightweight Sofya Ochigava were singular athletes as well. Shields, the 17-year-old middleweight with the vicious right hand, made new fans and established herself as the future of the women's sport with her three dominant victories on the way to a gold medal.
"I've been to three Olympic Games, six world championships, three Commonwealth Games, and that was the loudest noise I've ever heard in a boxing arena," said Terry Edwards, the former coach of the British team. "The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic."
The novelty of the sport wasn't the only reason for the excitement. Women's boxing can be a fascinating sport, frequently featuring cleaner technique and higher energy than the men's amateur sport, and the 36 elite fighters assembled in London put on a four-day show.
"Everybody is getting to see what we've been seeing for 10 years," said U.S. assistant coach Charles Leverette, whose initial reservations about the women's sport vanished long ago. "You can't have a much better competition than that, and it's only going to get bigger, too. The atmosphere, the performances, the venue, everything was great."
Rogge attended the gold-medal bouts and emerged with the same feelings.
"It was fantastic. I'm a very happy man," Rogge said. "There has been some criticism of whether women should be boxing, and of their level and technique. Today we have been vindicated. That was a good decision. It's only the beginning."
Other women's sports advocates took note, including IOC vice president Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, the first woman from a predominantly Muslim nation to win an Olympic medal when she won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
"The combat was beautiful," El Moutawakel said. "It was a wonderful show. They were technical and highly skilled. This was very important, a huge step. It reminds me of my '84 hurdles gold medal."
Wu, who promoted women's boxing for Olympic inclusion shortly after taking over in 2006, was even more succinct about the gold medal bouts' importance.
"This is the most important moment in AIBA's history," Wu said.
Women's amateur boxing seems certain to get an enormous boost at the local levels, but the tournament appears to be leading to even more opportunities for female boxers, who don't have much to look forward to in the professional ranks.
After the women's sport's spectacular success in London, Wu said AIBA is looking at extending its new professional boxing venture to women. AIBA is signing dozens of top amateur men, largely from nations without lucrative pro boxing cultures, to participate in regular pro fights under the AIBA Professional Boxing (APB) banner starting in late 2013.
Wu also says he hopes the field in Rio will feature at least 72 female boxers, hopefully more. To do it, the IOC would need to increase the total number of boxers allowed in the Olympics — which it didn't do for London, forcing AIBA to cut a men's weight class to cram in a truncated women's tournament.
"The more categories the better," said 33-year-old Nadezda Torlopova, the Russian silver medalist who is retiring to spend more time with her husband and son. "Women can go and prove themselves. Boxing is an Olympic sport, after all."
No matter what happens with this rapidly growing sport in the next few years, history was made by Taylor, Shields and Adams, the British flyweight who won the first gold medal in Olympic history. The champions and the rest of the field all realize the competition will only get tougher if this tournament draws better athletes and more attention to women's boxing.
The London pioneers can't wait to see what happens in Rio.
"When you see women's boxing at the highest level," British lightweight Natasha Jonas said, "how can you argue that women aren't just as good as the men?"