"It's silly to come all the way to China for a continental championship," says a friend of mine as we pore over the bracket sheets trying to figure out scenarios by which Claressa Shields can get to London. The explosive seventeen-year-old from Flint has already won gold at the Americas Championships, yet her Olympic future is still unclear.
Misinformation abounds in the stands. Several days ago, Erica Matos of Brazil asked me to explain to her what would happen if she lost to North Korea in the round of sixteen (which she did).
My heart broke a little. I didn't like to hear a boxer talk about losing before it even happened, yet I knew that the calm, technical North Korean would likely prevail.
Erica Matos is a southpaw with almond-shaped eyes and the musical style of a Capoeirista. She must work extra hard to make weight given her waist-length mane of hair. She is a perfect ambassador for our sport and deserves to be in London.
"If you lose -- which you won't," I said, waiting for Igor to translate.
Erica smiled nervously.
"Then you will need to start rooting for North Korea. The better she does, the better your final tournament finish will be."
I also knew that North Korea would face Russia in the quarterfinals, and that Russia would probably win, which is what happened. Erica was out of the running. This despite the fact that two flyweights from the Americas were advancing, and Erica had already taken a silver medal at the Americas Continental Championships in Cornwall, proving herself the second-best flyweight from our continent.
It's a terrible system that stakes girls' Olympic fates on the luck of their draw. It also makes this tournament one big anticlimax.
Nobody really cares who gets the medals, and nobody's paying much attention to the heroic efforts of the girls in the non-Olympic classes, such as the magnificent U.S. featherweight Tiara Brown, who roughed up China in a ludicrously scored bout on Wednesday night, winning 23-22.
Instead of following the action, we're all busy doing weird continental quota mathematics, rooting for the girl who beat our girl (or, in some cases, the girl who beat the girl who beat our girl).
It makes for bad copy, but for those interested in the middleweight picture, here goes: Later today, Sweden fights Azerbaijan and England fights Russia. These are all European countries, and only three Europeans go to London based on this tournament. So the European three are still unclear and will remain so until the gold medal is won. One Asian middleweight will advance, but both Kazakhstan and China lost in the quarters. The Chinese hopes now rest with England; the Kazakhstan delegation are pulling for Russia. The picture for the Americas is even more complex, with three fighters still in the running for two slots. In the weaker African and Oceanian fields, fighters qualified in the preliminaries. These fighters are not as competitive as the European, American, or Asian girls, yet they're guaranteed a berth.
There's also the mysterious and rare "tripartite slots," but I won't even go there. They're sort of like unicorns.
By contrast, male boxers have multiple chances to qualify for the Games. There was the Men's World Championships in Baku, from which the top finishers in each weight class advanced. Failing there, the men could still duke it out for the remaining quota places in regional tournaments, such as the Americas Continental Qualifier in Rio. It's a much fairer system, and it's anyone's guess why this was not used for the women.
Yesterday we took a field trip to the Great Wall of China. I walked next to Claressa Shields, who was clutching a plastic bird she had purchased at a souvenir shop. It was called "Shrilling Chicken," and, when squeezed, made a horrific wail.
"We need to start rooting and praying for England," I told her.
She shook her head. "I'll pray for her, but I ain't rooting for her."
"What's the difference?" asked Zack the documentarian.
"Who you root for doesn't matter," Claressa explained. "Everything's in God's hands now."