Caroline Dubois wins on historic stage where female athletes rarely tread

The clay dohyo ring had made way for a sprung floor, the judges preferred T-shirts and jeans to ceremonial kimono, y, overhead, a boom camera rotated in the space usually reserved for a wooden roof resembling a Shinto shrine.

A stage made for exponents of Japón’s ancient sport of sumo wrestling has been taken over by Olympic boxers as they vie for medals on the same hallowed ground that has witnessed triumphs by yokozuna grand champions, tear-stained retirement ceremonies and upsets greeted by the hurling of seat cushions from the crowd.

The sumo culture pervading Ryogoku Kokugikan, to give it its official name, and its eastern Tokyo neighbourhood may not have inspired Caroline Dubois, but her victory in the event’s preliminaries on Tuesday was worthy of its historic surroundings.

After her fellow Briton Pat McCormack had beaten the Belarusian Aliaksandr Radzionau by unanimous decision in their welterweight bout in the morning, the time came for Dubois, quien es writing for the Guardian during the Games, to break the limbo of life in the coronavirus bubble in the athletes’ village and begin her quest for gold.

Dubois, a former world junior and youth Olympic champion whose first competitive fights as an adult were in the Olympic qualifiers in March last year, wrote on Monday that she was determined to make an unforgettable start to her Tokyo 2020 campaign.

Y, so she did, against a gritty Kosovan, Donjeta Sadiku, in the lightweight round of 32. Urged on by teammates in the upper tier, the 20-year-old Londoner found her rhythm after a cagey first round, wearing down her opponent with right jab-left hook combinations to secure her first win of the Games by unanimous decision. Dubois faces Rashida Ellis of the United States on Friday.

“We knew she was a rough, tough opponent and she would bring the pressure and make it as messy and scrappy as possible,” Dubois said. “She has more experience than me and has fought at a major level – she’s been to the worlds, Europeos, she’s fought the best – so I knew she was going to be tough.”

Dubois had entered the arena along the hanamichi, a raised “flower path” leading to the ring trodden by generations of grand champions, most recently Hakuho Sho, a reigning yokozuna widely regarded as the greatest of all time.

After a victorious Dubois had retraced her steps along the aisle, she said watching her Team GB teammates win contests during the opening three days in Tokyo had added to the pressure. “It’s crazy. I’ve been on pretty late and boxing’s only just started.

“Watching everybody else box was making me more and more nervous. Normally I’m the first on so that’s out of the way now and no more pressure, but it had been building and building. I just couldn’t wait to get in the ring.

While many professional athletes have bemoaned the absence of spectators during long periods of the pandemic, boxers have, for the large, part, been more sanguine about competing in near-silence – something, they say, rekindles memories of their formative years.

Dubois was no exception. “It’s definitely a lot different to what I expected. I remember watching Katie Taylor and Natasha Jones as they walked out and the crowd went absolutely mental. The noise was unreal, I was blown away with it.

“There’s no real crowd and the atmosphere isn’t really here but the pressure is. This is the Juegos olímpicos. This is where dreams are made or broken. We all want the same thing. We’re used to fighting in empty arenas and we go to small tournaments so this isn’t really that different to what I’m used to.”

The Kokugikan has hosted boxing competitions before, but when it comes to sumo the only women are in the audience. Female sumo wrestlers do not compete professionally, although more are taking up the sport as amateurs, and outdated superstitions about menstruation mean all women are banned from the dohyo used in six major tournaments held over the year – three of them at Kokugikan.

The ban has occasionally brought embarrassment to the sumo elders who run the sport. In the 2000s, they repeatedly prevented the female governor of Osaka, Fusae Ota, from stepping on to the ring to present a trophy to the tournament winner.

The absurdity of the rule was exposed again three years ago, when women who rushed to the aid of a man suffering a stroke while giving a speech at a sumo event were ordered to leave the ring by one of the judges.

Boxing, it should be remembered, also rejected women’s involvement at the highest levels until their chance came at London 2012, turning Nicola Adams and Taylor into sporting stars and role models for a young Dubois.

“It’s mad because when I was 11 años, I was watching Katie and Natasha going through the Olympics," ella dijo. “Now that I’m here, it feels a bit surreal. I’m like ‘wow, I’m really at an Olympic Games.’ I keep having to catch myself and think ‘damn, this is it.’ There’s always that pressure that comes with it.”

As she spoke, the rain and wind that swirled around Tokyo in the morning had passed, giving way to fluffy clouds dotting a deep blue sky. The weather, and the sumo gods, were smiling on Dubois.

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