So it’s been an eventful week for Olympic boxing. Sandwiched in amidst the gaudy pantheon of sporting events that is London 2012, the amateur boxing contests at the ExCel Exhibition Centre have not failed to routinely excite, bemuse and surprise. As I write, six of Britain’s seven male boxers have stormed into the quarter-finals of the competition, as GB captain Tom Stalker won a tough welterweight bout against India’s Manoj Kumar.Today will prove to be one of women boxing’s proudest moments too: the sport’s entry into the Olympic boxing stratosphere. With Team GB’s bright prospects, Nicola Adams, Natasha Jonas and Savannah Marshall looking ready to go, it is safe to say our fighting Olympians are in a very strong position.
The same cannot be said however, for Team USA. With so much happening it is easy to forget that the boxing world’s premier talking-point is actually what didn’t happen: fight fans watched on with shock as the once juggernaut United States men’s team made a humiliating exit from the Games, without one of them bringing an Olympic medal back home. Yes, that’s right: the once indestructible Team USA have failed. Although such an advent might stir a hearty chuckle from British viewers as we watch the tribulations of our American counterparts, and indeed an unkind laugh from most Cubans, the surprise U.S exit has raised some serious questions. Hadn’t the US, after all, come with the biggest and most anticipated boxing squad of any country to London 2012? Was it not this very country that captured a staggering and indeed record in the annals of Olympic history, 48 boxing gold medals?
Indeed, in the past, Olympic boxing acted like an elite finishing school and final examination paper for future American champions: a great opportunity for talented U.S boxers, who would seize gold medals before launching lucrative professional careers founded upon the interest generated from the Games. American sports fans in the 1960’s were treated to this dynamic spectacle when Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier and George Foreman won gold medals at successive Games (Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City) in the heavyweight category. All three became heavyweight champions, heralding the golden age of heavyweight boxing through their classic showdowns in the 1970s. US Olympic boxing went from strength to strength, with the star-studded classes of ’76 and ‘84 featuring future champions and legends, ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Pernell Whitaker. In 1984, Team USA left Los Angeles with nothing short of 9 gold medals.
They have had their knocks too. Future superstars Evander Holyfield of ‘84, Roy Jones Jr of ’88 and Floyd Mayweather of ‘96 have all been nothing short of robbed of Olympic gold medals due to absurd scoring and disqualifications. But even they walked away with some form of medal, and it is within the context of this glorious history of Olympic success that Team USA is now under such scrutiny. There are a lot of suggestions as to why the USA are now walking away medal-less in the men’s category. Critics have put forward the idea that American boxers are impatient to turn professional, drawn by the glamour, financial reward and publicity that championship fighting can offer. The concomitant of this is in an unwillingness to craft, develop and hone the skills of amateur boxing: a process which requires patience, dedication and diligence. Of the 2012 squad, only Rau’shee Warren has fought in an Olympic squad before.
Such an attitude, others would argue, is inevitable in a sport where severe physical damage is everyday: if you are going to get hit, you might as well get paid handsomely for it. Money in boxing is only to be found in the professional ranks. But unacceptable if true, is the assertion that the U.S boxing team were poorly handled and prepared for the challenges of London 2012. Indeed, Basheer Abdullah, the officer who ran the U.S army’ boxing programme for 15 years, was appointed to the post of head coach just weeks before the Olympics began. Moreover, the rules dictated that as a trainer who had dealt with professional prize-fighters in the current year, Abdullah would violate Olympic protocol if he were to be present ringside or in the corner of any of his fighters. The thought that the head coach cannot even be in his fighter’s corner during a contest hardly makes the disappointing results unsurprising ones.
Whatever the reason, this week represents a sad moment in the history of amateur boxing. While many, including Team GB, will certainly be happy to see American domination in the sport vanquished for the time being, it does not bode well for the future if the USA, once a bastion of dynamic and prodigious boxing talent, can’t get it right anymore. The Americans will hope that their women boxers, whose contests start today, can bring home some much needed medals.