Dark background to fighters' battle for Olympic places

Just one British boxer has qualified for the Sydney Games and time is running out

A high-ranking Russian boxing referee did not make it to the 1996 Olympics - he was tortured and shot dead in the bath at his Moscow apartment, one of three victims of a struggle for control of the sport. It is far more civilised here on Merseyside where this week 60 of the world's top officials have been sitting in judgement during the seventh of eight qualification tournaments for the Sydney Games. But that is not to say the week has been free from the hint of dark dealings behind the scenes.

A high-ranking Russian boxing referee did not make it to the 1996 Olympics - he was tortured and shot dead in the bath at his Moscow apartment, one of three victims of a struggle for control of the sport. It is far more civilised here on Merseyside where this week 60 of the world's top officials have been sitting in judgement during the seventh of eight qualification tournaments for the Sydney Games. But that is not to say the week has been free from the hint of dark dealings behind the scenes.

That deadly power struggle is just one of the reasons that the International Olympic Committee would like the business element of boxing to stay in Las Vegas and Bethnal Green and not join in its own carnival of excess every fourth summer. In Liverpool this week, men from the former Soviet Union have bought Rolex watches and entertained lavishly, but so far they have stayed alive as serious deals have been struck between the sport's most powerful officials. Men from Ukraine, Turkey, Russia and Hungary have been talking to their emissaries in Liverpool hotels as deals have been brokered for the few remaining Olympic places.

So far over 50 English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish boxers have failed to secure a ticket to Sydney. Only Repton's Audley Harrison, at super-heavyweight, is guaranteed a seat on the plane. Today one boxer, the English light-flyweight Gary Jones, will try to join him by winning his semi-final and securing a place in Saturday's final, guaranteeing a passage to Sydney from an event that has cost £210,000 to put together, including £63,000 from the sport's Lottery funding.

The tournament involves 196 boxers from 39 European countries, but it seemed the most important man in Liverpool would not be boxer, a referee or coach. At all of the previous qualification tournaments, the two finalists qualified for Sydney but in Liverpool the two beaten semifinalists were scheduled to box for a lucky third place. But 10 days ago Igor Gaidamak, from Ukraine, who is the chairman of the European Amateur Boxing Association's coaches' commission, was given the power by EABA officials at the qualification tournament in Halle, Germany to administer a system of wild card places for the Olympics. A few officials realised that the wild card system was intended, for the most part, to replace the expected box-offs here and so began hundreds of hours of secret meetings and wheeler-dealing.

However, in the world of boxing nothing is ever straightforward and the organisers of the tournament here believe they have the power to overturn the Halle decision. They believe there will be box-offs during Saturday's finals at the beautiful St George's Hall.

Whenever amateur boxing officials get together, tales of espionage and intrigue abound. That is hardly surprising. The former head of the sport, East Berlin's Karl-Heinz Wehr, was exposed as an active Stasi agent, several officials are known KGB men and one of Britain's is known as 007 because of his links with the intelligence service.

Thankfully the action in the ring has risen above all this distraction in the background - the boxing has been truly memorable. The quality, even after so many have already qualified, is staggering with former world and European champions still trying to secure a place in Sydney. This is top quality sport, with the leading amateurs in the world figuring out the best way to overcome each other during four two-minute rounds. That they have to do it four or five times during a seven-day period to achieve their goal makes it all the more impressive.

"In amateur boxing now there are no easy nations, no safe options," said Great Britain's Olympic coach, Ian Irwin. "The best we can do is look for some luck in the draw and hope that our boxers are not injured during the earlier rounds before the semi-finals."

On Tuesday there was little luck and no pity for Liverpool's Stephen Burke in his first series bout against Azerbaijan's Moharh Nurininov. Burke lost 11-3 on points and was left with 48 hours to decide on a future; he can go professional or he can go to Venice next week for a tournament that is a qualification event for the European Championships. There is also a rumour that some Olympic places will be distributed in Venice.

Burke postponed his 21st birthday party from last week to this and is not sure what he wants to do. If he goes ahead with the party, he will miss Venice and the Olympics; if he goes to Venice, there is a chance that he could follow in the footsteps of his brother, David, who boxed at the Atlanta Games, and find his way to the Olympics. Just a chance.

If Jones loses today he will try his luck in Venice, but ifHarrison remains the sole Olympic representative for Great Britain, the sport's many critics will insist it is going down the drain. That would be a simplistic view that failed to take into consideration the deplorable decisions that marred the Istanbul qualifier in November and the ruinous effects of young boxers turning professional too early.

"I have never seen decisions like the ones I saw in Istanbul," said Tony Burns, the coach at the Repton club who has trained nine Olympic boxers. "In one bout a French boxer was told to get out of the ring after two rounds by his trainer because the scoring was so bad. It was not worth completing the contest."

In addition to Harrison, Burns has three boxers taking part in Venice and two boxing in qualification tournaments in the Caribbean.

When it is all over here on Saturday and the officials are at their banquet, many of the losers will be working out their route to Venice for one more chance. Some, if they are lucky, could yet receive one of Gaidamak's wild cards, but whatever else the lucky ones are very unlikely to be British or Irish. Amateur boxing can be a very serious business, as that man in his bath found out. It is important to back the right people.

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