Kick Ass Girls Grab Olympic Spirit By the Scruff of the Neck
The London 2012 Olympics were special for women. Female competitors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were finally able to compete and Team GB included a record 48% of female competitors whilst women in the USA team outnumbered the men. Britain’s female footballers drew huge crowds (outperforming their male counterparts) and for the first time all events were competed in by both men and women with Taekwondo (a full Olympic sport since the Sydney games of 2000) and boxing (in the games since 1904) having their first ever female events. Both competitions took place in front of sell out crowds and both brought gold for Great Britain making household names of Nicola Adams and Jade Jones.
After Britain’s female rowers kicked off the scoop of medals, another physical female competitor, brought up in Greenwich, was propelled towards centre stage. Gemma Gibbons was a promising young judoka when Kate Howey won a silver medal for Great Britain in 2000 but since then, success in the judo arena had proved elusive for Team GB. Gibbons, now coached by Howey, wasn’t an expected medallist in 2012 but, against the odds, she fought her way through to the final of the -78kg category. As Team GB began to pick up medal after medal around the games, the television audience was gripped as Gibbons, guaranteed a silver, took on the USA’s Kayla Harrison at the Excel Arena for a first ever British Judo gold.
Sadly, the American came out on top in the final but it didn’t detract from Gemma Gibbons profile and her place in the hearts of the British audience. The tearful “I love you mum!” mouthed to the sky (her mother had died of cancer 8 years earlier) proved one of the most iconic moments of the games and the local girl suddenly had a profile higher than any other British judoka previously.
Unlike Gibbons, Nicola Adams was a leading hope for Britain in the boxing ring. She took up the sport aged 12 when her mother, unable to afford a babysitter, took her to an aerobics class at a gym and, like Billy Elliot in reverse, Nicola got involved with a boxing session. “My dad had tapes of Muhammed Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson.” she told The Independent in October 2012 “Because I’d been watching since I was a kid, I wanted to have a go and was determined to be a champion.”
She already had an impressive medal collection before 2012 and had comeback from a serious back injury to win a European Championship title and qualify for the Olympic team. The profile of women’s boxing lagged someway behind the men’s sport, still seen as a very unfeminine activity by the majority but Adams, in winning the first ever women’s Olympics boxing gold medal, became the face not just for the sport in Britain but around the world.
Being the first winner may perhaps be just an accident of scheduling but, with a passionate crowd in the Excel Arena, women’s boxing generated one of the games’ most memorable atmospheres and was truly on the Olympic map. Adams supreme performance and winning smile earned her a gold medal, a nomination for BBC Sports Personality Of The Year and was even dragged into the political arena. “Boris Johnson says his sons started boxing after seeing me – how cool is that?”
Third up was teenager Jade Jones from North Wales, competing in the -57kg class in Taekwondo. She took up the sport at the age of 8 and, with help from her grandfather, travelled to find a suitable gym in Manchester to take part in a discipline that had yet to receive Olympic status. “When I first got into Taekwondo I started to do better in school, better in all sorts of things.” she said to jitty.com. “It is fighting but it’s just a sport and you’re only doing it there. You’re putting the work into something good.” Jones was quickly hooked and showed clear promise, switching to the full contact version at the age of 15 with hopes of making it to London 2012. She picked up medals at junior events, including gold at the 2010 Youth Olympics but, outside of her native North Wales, was still off most people’s radar.
The sport had received some negative publicity in the build up to the games with World number 1 ranked Aaron Cook not selected for the men’s team behind lower ranked rivals. In the arena this translated to success for the men with a bronze medal for Britain’s Lutalo Muhammad but Jones’ gold catapulted the sport into the nation’s front rooms. The teenager who just a few weeks earlier was looking up to fellow Olympians as role models suddenly became a role model herself. Following her triumph, she told thesportreview.com “The best thing has been people approaching me in the street now knowing what it is I do and exactly how taekwondo works. Beforehand I had to explain to them what it was I actually did!”
The three girls, all proving successful in traditionally unfeminine sports, form a triumvirate of fighters who became the faces of their respective events and of the Olympics as a whole. Other female stars such as Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Christine Ohorugo had previously tasted success in heavily covered events and already had high profiles but the combat sports now had faces to show that young, unassuming girls could win in physical events at the highest level and do it with a smile on their faces.