Boxing: Amir Khan gets back to his roots
Fighter puts recent travails aside to develop a youth initiative that goes beyond the reach of most Olympic legacy schemes
Thursday 20 September 2012
The waiting lists are growing, the "club full" signs have been posted online, on doors at clubs and in local papers since the Olympics ended.
In London, dozens of boxing gyms have been overwhelmed since the last bell and last gold medal, with mums and dads calling and trying to drop their children off, forcing many gyms to open longer hours and introduce new sessions. It needs to be said that amateur boxing coaches are not paid for their nights and days in gyms.
Amir Khan has been at the centre of the post-Olympic sporting buzz, talking to parents at the doors of his self-funded centre in Bolton and in his role with StreetGames, a charity backed by Coca-Cola in the UK that aims to deliver sporting opportunities. Khan is a good choice as a roving ambassador because boxing and boxing gyms often go where no other sports want to go – into the poorest and most neglected areas. The late-night basketball leagues often invade the same streets and those streets can be dangerous.
"I know that boxing gyms can make a difference – it saved my life. It changed my life and took me off the streets at the right time," said Khan at a StreetGames event this month. "The gym was local and that was important and that is what makes StreetGames so special – the sport comes to the street, it comes to the people that need it most by delivering it to the streets outside their doors."
Khan has just returned from New York sorting out the chaos of his professional career, which is delicately poised after his shocking loss in July to Danny Garcia in a world title fight that he should have won. However, earlier this month, he was at Sportcity, next to Manchester City's stadium, for the StreetGames North West Sports Festival with more than 700 local young people playing about a dozen sports. Khan has, it needs to be said, been ploughing money back into his community since winning a silver medal in 2004 at the Athens Olympics when he was just 17.
"I have put my hand in my pocket and built my own gym, but it is more than just a boxing gym. We have the homework room out the back and we have an open-door policy" said Khan, whose gym cost him just shy of £1 million. "We don't exclude anybody; everybody gets a chance. We have teachers bringing kids to us. We work with the community and the community then works with us – it is good for everybody and I can see StreetGames doing the same.
"It will give a lot of kids the opportunity to try out sports and it will be easier and cheaper for parents. We have to accept that a lot of parents simply can't afford to send their kids off to clubs. The clubs might be a long way off or just too much. StreetGames can deliver sport to the community and that is the best way. The sport has to be right there, the old-fashioned way.
"After the Olympics, everybody is talking about sport and it seems everybody wants to play something. Well, this is the chance. Sport can change a kid's life but he needs the chance to try it and to try it with proper coaches. This can help – everything like this can help.
"I have seen some special skills since being here at Sportcity and I can spot talent like that. I just need to look for a bit. I look for speed, skill and power – I can always tell if somebody is good even if they like frisbee – and I know nothing about that," continued Khan, who at best could be described as a "competitive novice" at frisbee. "The coaches with StreetGames can do the same and what if they spot one kid, just one kid, that goes on and does something? That is what happened to me with the boxing. What if there is one future Olympian here? That would be fantastic."
With Coca-Cola Great Britain's support, StreetGames aims to secure a genuine legacy of increased grassroots sport participation. It has been able to extend its network of projects to reach over 110,000 young people and recently reached the milestone of 2 million attendances at its network of projects.
The charity is, so it seems, dedicated to taking its initiative to the streets, direct to the communities that have been either overlooked or have chosen to ignore the sporting opportunities close to their doorsteps. There is also the very real prospect, as Khan pointed out, that some young people simply cannot afford to join a club or travel to one, which is something that the Olympic legacy merchants conveniently overlook.
There are also stories from some cities that using public transport is impossible because routes travel across ground that people are scared to cross. There are no grand words that can persuade a petrified teenager to travel through a rival gang's neighbourhood to train at any type of football academy. It was a few years ago that former Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp claimed that the best academy in football was lost forever. "It's gone," said Redknapp. "It was called the street and nobody plays on it now." He was right, but times have changed.
"When I was a kid I played on the streets all of the time. We played loads of games and they never stopped. The sides just kept growing as more and more people came out to play and the rules kept changing," added Khan, "They were mad games of cricket and football. They were massive and they just kept going on and on. That's what a street game is all about and this [StreetGames] can be the same."
Meanwhile, the plan for Khan is to fight again on 15 December, hopefully in Manchester, but he must first sort out the growing and increasingly ugly confusion surrounding his trainer.
Khan parted with his long-term coach Freddie Roach during his stay in New York and is talking to a shortlist of four or five trainers. Khan needs to decide quick on a trainer and opponent, get a new head on and stop taking so many risks in the ring.
StreetGames is the sports charity that brings sport to the doorstep of young people in disadvantaged communities across the UK. The charity is supported by Coca-Cola Great Britain. To find out more and to get involved, visit streetgames.org
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