Golden DeGale fizzes with joy and rage
Monday 25 August 2008
With his gold medal hanging around his neck, James DeGale said that after 12 weeks of abstinence he was going off to have a glass of "cheeky" champagne. Impertinent or not, the golden wine was the appropriate means of both celebrating and washing away a week that had threatened to leave the man from West London, his embattled team leader, Terry Edwards, and the bronze medal winners David Price and Tony Jeffries with only the taste of poison.
DeGale averted that possibility with a victory over the Cuban favourite, Emilio Correa, that was more about survival techniques than some of the virtuoso ring skills he had been unfurling with increasing consistency on the way to the final.
The trouble was, though, that a few swigs of bubbly were never going to disperse the sense of betrayal that may have taken permanent residence among the boxers whose three medals add up to Britain's best performance since Melbourne in 1956.
DeGale's distaste for the political manoeuvrings against Edwards at the Amateur Boxing Association was as apparent as his joy at winning gold – and the delicious dilemma of having to choose between being a hero, and maybe even the face, of his home town in the Olympics of 2012 and an expected bid of £1m for him to turn professional.
The alleged attempt by the ABA to de-stabilise the team and their three semi-finalists with the announcement that a team-mate, Billy Joe Saunders, had been suspended, had, if it was indeed such a move to cause maximum distraction, gone badly wrong in the wake of DeGale's triumph.
His victory speech was most of all an ultimatum to the anti-Edwards forces. Keep Edwards, it said, and he would be around in four years' time. Cut him loose, and DeGale would lead the defection into the pro ranks.
Said the new Olympic champion: "All this stuff Terry has been getting at home, all this bullshit, is not nice. He's like a dad to all the team and he doesn't need all this in his life. He's produced three medals in these Olympics and we haven't had that for 60 years [52, to be precise.] What's happening is pathetic because he must be doing something right. We've all got respect for him. If they brought in somebody else we would probably take the piss out of him.
"It's hard to say no to a million pounds but if they come to me with a sensible offer, and Terry is OK, well that could be me signing for four years and going into the next Olympics. I could be a little superstar in amateur boxing – and I could earn some decent dough. Winning another gold medal in 2012 in my home city, imagine that, and to be the face of the London Olympics would be unbelievable. Deep in my heart, I think, 'London, 2012, that's me. If Terry stays, that's me'. I think he could keep four or five of us from the Beijing team."
Only one thing was quite clear in these acrid footnotes to a performance that deserved to be placed highly in already cluttered lists of British valour here.
DeGale wasn't pretty but he showed a fine, streetwise instinct for the winning moves – a quality which suggests that his impact on the professional game might well be much more significant than that of Britain's last Olympic champion, Audley Harrison, eight years ago.
There was never going to be a lot of beauty in the 16-14 win over Correa, another 22-year-old whose desperation – it included a bite at DeGale' chest – no doubt had much to do with his eagerness to maintain the family tradition established by his father, also Emilio, at the Munich Olympics of 1972. Correa Snr beat the Hungarian Janos Kajdi on a unanimous decision, but Jnr was never able to produce that kind of command.
It didn't help him that DeGale shot into a 6-1 first-round lead, the result of some well-timed counter-punching and the two-point deduction for Correa's relatively mild impersonation of Mike Tyson. But then the pressure piled on the Briton after he lost two points for holding and in the last minute of the final round DeGale was obliged to back-pedal to victory. He did it with considerable aplomb, then sat on the canvas and wept.
He said: "I had just been thinking, 'Let me just get through this'. It's nerve-racking. You're two points up and there's a minute left. He was coming at me with mad swings over the top and accusing me of holding, but I wasn't holding. I wanted to box. I was cool in there. In five fights I've shown bits of what I can do but there's still probably 40 per cent left. When I first saw my draw I thought, 'This is going to be hard to get the bronze, but I got better and better. At one point I was thinking silver but at the back of my mind it was always the gold medal.
"It was hard tonight but everything proved worthwhile. He was holding me, throwing me, it was horrible. Then his little gold teeth were munching me up. But I kept thinking, 'I want this, and I'm going to get it'."
Edwards may have been besieged by menacing men in blazers but this, you could see in his eyes, was the sweetest vindication.
"There was a time," said the coach, "when I said, 'I don't need this', and that maybe I should spend more time at home, which is something my wife deserves. But the way I feel now, having seen the team exceed its targets and with a record of three Olympic finals in three Olympics, and two gold medals, I do have this urge to carry on. With this team we can a have real impact on the next Olympics. We could be the new Cuba of amateur boxing."
Yes, the Olympic gold medallist liked the ring of that. He loved the idea of being the poster boy of London town. Cheeky champagne? Not at all. It is, after all, the wine of champions and in such company James DeGale surely has a rightful place.
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