Britain losing the battle for Olympic glory

Outdated selection process and early losses to professional ranks means that no home boxer has yet made the grade for Sydney
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The Independent Online

The Olympic boxing tournament starts in late September and it is possible that Britain will not have one fighter present when the first bell tolls in Sydney.

The Olympic boxing tournament starts in late September and it is possible that Britain will not have one fighter present when the first bell tolls in Sydney.

This is the third Olympic Games for which qualification tournaments have been introduced for the boxing programme and only Cuba, the world's best boxing nation, have been allocated 12 spots at the Games.

So far 35 British boxers have travelled to five European qualification tournaments, and they have failed to secure one place. They now have only three more tournaments in which to do so.

It all started in Sevastopol, Ukraine, last October and ends in March with those three tournaments, including the Liverpool Festival between 17-26. In theory, a place in Sydney will be easier to achieve because the other nations' best boxers have already qualified.

Yet Britain are not even guaranteed to have their best boxers competing for a place because they lack a proper qualification process. In America there is a much more rigorous system for selecting Olympians.

In Tampa, Florida, last week the US Olympic trials took place. A total of 96 boxers entered the trials and when it was over on Sunday there were winners at each of the 12 weights. However, that does not conclude the American selection system.

The 12 winners will take part in the official Olympic box-offs at the end of this month in Connecticut and they will face the best losers from their weight category from Tampa. At the box-offs, the winner has to win just once, the loser has to win twice in succession. It is one of the fairest systems of selection in sport and also one of the most gruelling.

It is a fierce schedule for any athlete and most of last weekend's losers will be now looking to sign professional papers. Even those who eventually go on to represent the American team will be lost to the amateur ranks immediately after the Olympics. "They turn pro straight away," said the US Olympic coach, Al Mitchell. "I wish I could keep them for two years but these kids are poor, they are my boys from the 'hood and if somebody starts to talk about 200, 300 or 500 thousand dollars I would tell them to go take it. That is the truth."

In Britain the situation is similar. Too many are lost too early to the professional business. The World Class Performance Fund has kept a few boxers from the open doors of the professionals but the pressures of qualification for all major amateur tournaments has added an extra burden. In truth, it is easier for a young prospect to turn professional than it is for him to plot a path through the mire of amateur boxing politics in search of an increasingly unlikely gold medal at either the Olympic, European or World Championships. Britain's last Olympic gold was in 1968, and in recent years the best achievements were bronze medals at light middleweight in 1988 and 1992 for Richie Woodhall and Robin Reid respectively.

Britain's Olympic coach, Ian Irwin, said the four-year cycle inevitably leads to disputes and squabbles."I'm not sure box-offs are the right way," said Irwin. "With box-offs it is a case of who hits the right note on the night. In an ideal world we would have the money and the time to organise something similar to the American system."

At welterweight, David Walker, the 1998 Amateur Boxing Association English champion, has turned professional with Panos Eliades which is good news for Tony Cesay, the 1999 champion, since there will now be no need for the box-off, which was a possibility.

The dilemma at light heavyweight has not resolved itself and has created enough animosity between the two involved, David Hay and Courtney Fry, that several of their sparring sessions have been stopped short. Last season Hay stopped Fry, but Fry was the reigning domestic champion and Commonwealth gold medallist.

Hay went to the World Championships and lost to the eventual winner but, because of an injury, Fry had two opportunities to secure an Olympic place last winter. He failed on both occasions and now Hay has a chance in Germany on 6-13 March.

However, if Hay loses and looks bad Fry will be selected for the final tournament in Venice at the end of March. It is the type of pressure that a young fighter like Hay, who is still only 19, should not have to deal with. The pair should have boxed each other last October.

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