Khan convinced by his golden vision

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The Independent Online

So here he is, this fresh-faced lad, with proud father at his side. He looks like any other sporty 17-year-old. He could be a decent footballer, or maybe a cricketer. But he's a boxer. A very good one. The only one good enough, in fact, to represent Britain at next month's Olympic Games.

Amir Khan's polite handshake is at the other end of the spectrum from crushingly powerful. And in this case, the handshake is the man - or rather, the youth. It is elegance, rather than brute force, which has enabled this citizen of Bolton to rise with dazzling swiftness through the ranks, to the point where he has succeeded in a quest which 40 other British colleagues have failed to see through.

All this, too, despite the fact that he's still too young to contest the English senior title under Amateur Boxing Association rules. That will have to wait until he turns 18 this December.

The statistics only tell part of Khan's tale, but they speak clearly enough.

As a lightweight, boxing out of the Bury club, he has had just 12 senior contests since persuading England officials he was capable of moving up a level by winning the junior Olympic title 18 months ago in Louisiana.

Since his first senior bout in January, he has beaten the world bronze medallist and lost narrowly to Cuba's Olympic and world champion, Mario Kindelan. In between these two fights, he booked his place for Athens by winning an Olympic qualifier in Bulgaria, also being named best boxer of the tournament.

But simply qualifying was not enough for this upwardly mobile pugilist whose ultimate ambition, perhaps beyond the 2008 Olympics, is "to be world champion". Last month, in Korea, he won the world under-19 championship.

"He didn't have to do it, but it was for the title," said Khan's father, Shajaad, a qualified mechanic who fits in running around after his prodigious offspring with running a scrap yard and a minicab.

"Yes," his son concurs. "Now I'm going to the Olympics as a world junior champion and not a nobody. It was good preparation for the Olympics too, boxing five times against the best, getting known by judges and being in the eye of people in the business."

Khan has caught not just the eyes but the tongues of those who know the game. His performance in Bulgaria was described by England's team manager, Peter Hayes, as the best he had ever seen. And last month no lesser figure than the president of the International Amateur Boxing Association, Anwar Chowdhry, announced: "Amir will win gold at the Olympics."

Expecting another British Olympic lightweight victory to be set alongside the one Scotland's Dick McTaggart achieved in 1956 is a big ask for a youngster who is just starting to make his way in the sport. But it causes the youngster in question few qualms.

"I've seen a few of the others in my category and I think I can beat them," he said. "I'm fairly confident I can go in there and do a bit of good. Obviously I'm capable of winning a medal if the draw is good and the crowd get behind me."

As for Kindelan - well, no great problem envisaged there either. "I was a bit nervous going in against him because he was the best in the world," Khan said. "But now I know what to expect and if I face him in the Olympics I will beat him."

Winning, admittedly, is something Khan has grown used to since his father first took him down the road to the Halliwell Boxing Club as an eight-year-old. Like Lennox Lewis - a Briton who capitalised rather well on an Olympic victory - Khan was a hyperactive kid, but he immediately channelled his energies into this new challenge.

"I've never missed a session since I started," he said. "I've had 100 fights, and I've lost eight." At which point, proud dad chips in: "And three of those were by the time he was 11."

It is family support, Khan maintains, that has allowed him to realise his soaring ambition. While the Asian culture often demands that the younger generation concentrates on educational or commercial goals, Khan's parents were happy for him to develop in what seemed a natural direction.

"A lot of kids don't get the backing because parents want them to carry on studying or whatever," Khan Snr said. "But I say, whatever the kid is good at, I think you should encourage them." His philosophy may yield him long years of taxiing about - Amir's 13-year-old brother Haroon recently won the Four Nations boxing championship in Liverpool.

Clearly this is a wider family trait. Khan's cousin, Sajid Mahmood, recently made his debut for the English Test cricket side. As with Khan, whose parents come from Rawalpindi, there was no question of him not representing the country of his birth.

Khan is deeply involved not just with boxing, but its history, steeping himself in books and videos. Predictably, Muhammad Ali is his principal idol, appreciated for his style and adaptability. Naseem Hamed, too, was on his list for boxing chutzpah - although he has now apparently dropped off it because of the way he conducts himself outside the ring.

British boxing is now looking towards another hugely talented Asian fighter to create excitement in the sport. Khan himself is markedly calm about it all. Dad, understandably, is a little more agitated.

"Amir improves every day," he said. "I've got every one of his fights on tape, and the confidence in the very first fight and this very last fight he had in the world championships is virtually the same. He was like it from the beginning."