Body blow as boxing is out for the countdown to 2012

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The Independent Online

On a noticeboard at the England headquarters in the Commonwealth Games village there was an invitation to answer jokey questions posed by other team members. One asked: "What do you say when you see an athlete on the training track?" Underneath, someone had scrawled: "Hello, stranger."

It made the point that some were taking the Games more seriously than others. As the Manchester featherweight Stephen Smith, one of the five England boxing gold medallists, said: "Being in the village makes you realise just how much more disciplined we are than some of the other sports. We train twice a day, every day - even those who have lost their bouts. It seems some of the others just go out, do a jump or something and then enjoy themselves."

If any sport could be held up as an example of teaching kids what discipline, dignity and good sportsmanship is about, it is amateur boxing - which makes its exclusion from the new UK Schools Games seem rather puzzling. One hopes the PC PCs have not been at work.

Mistakenly announced by Gordon Brown in his Budget speech as the "Schools Olympics", these five-sport annual championships are the welcome brainchild of the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn. But many will find the decision to include fencing at the expense of a sport such as boxing bizarre, to say the least. The other sports are athletics, swimming, gymnastics and table tennis, with provision for disabled competition in athletics and swimming.

But why has boxing, an original Olympic sport, been summarily KO'd? "It is unbelievable," says Paul King, the chief executive of the Amateur Boxing Association. "We are very disappointed, especially in view of the high profile we achieved in Melbourne and the fact that once again boxing is becoming increasingly popular in schools, both for girls and boys. We'll certainly be lobbying as hard as we can for boxing to be included in future."

Pro rata, the boxing team were England's most successful in Melbourne. Several of the eight medallists were products of school championships, as was the Olympic silver medallist Amir Khan. Women's boxing is to be introduced at the next Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and could be on the agenda for London 2012, for which these schools championships are designed as preparation.

At schools and amateur level it can be argued that boxing is less dangerous than other contact sports. The new scoring system means that skill is rewarded rather than slugging, and bouts seem to be stopped at the sniff of a nosebleed.

Fencing was chosen by Glasgow, who as host city had the right to nominate one sport. Presumably they speak of nothing else but foils and épées on the piste in Sauchiehall Street, but one cannot imagine the kids of Hackney Free or countless inner-city comprehensives being well acquainted with an activity that may not be quite as élitist as when James Bond did his sabre-rattling but is among the most expensive in terms of equipment.

Eyebrows shot up in Lausanne when the Chancellor, as part of his 2012 funding package, announced the first-ever "Schools Olympics" in September. Surely one of his sports advisers should have whispered in his ear that you can no more use the word "Olympics" to describe such an event than potential sponsors of London 2012 can employ the five Olympic rings to promote their wares. Hence the hasty retitling as the UK Schools Games.

"I am so envious," said the ex-hurdler Colin Jackson at the Battersea Park launch. "I wish this could have happened in my time. We need to get more competition in schools. Life is about competition. There are always winners and there are always losers. We have to get youngsters used to the idea that sport is an in-your-face thing."

Hundreds will compete as regional teams for four days, mirroring the Olympics with opening and closing ceremonies and village life. Leading up to 2012 it is hoped to include some teams from overseas and increase the number of sports, so boxing may yet climb into the ring.

Tessa Jowell, minus wedding ring but still determinedly wearing her Olympics rings, says these Games, funded by £6m from the Government and £1.5m from the Lottery, "are part of our Olympic dream, building on the rebirth of competitive sport in schools across the country". She even reckons the Australians are becoming increasingly envious of Britain's sports programme.

In view of the Aussies' medal supremacy, that may be over-egging things, like labelling the Games as "Olympics". Yet they are a terrific idea. Pity they didn't box a bit cleverer over boxing.

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