Britain’s boxers are angrily claiming a low blow to their Beijing hopes by their own governing body ahead of their most crucial Olympic challenge in 36 years.
The astonishing timing of the suspension of 18-year-old welterweight Billy Joe Saunders for alleged ‘lewd behaviour’ at a training camp two months ago is seen here as a ploy by the Amateur Boxing Association to undermine much-respected head coach Terry Edwards, who it is widely believed they are seeking to replace.
The suspension, of which Saunders learned by letter when he returned home to Hertfordshire from Beijing earlier this week, comes as three boxers, James Degale, Tony Jeffries and David Price contest semi-final bouts in Beijing on Saturday, having already confirmed their team's medal haul will be the greatest since the Munich Olympics in 1972. All three have secured bronze medals and are in with a decent shout of winning silver or gold, which would be unprecedented in Britain’s boxing history.
Edwards said here tonight that he was “extremely disillusioned" over the circumstances and timing of the suspension, and the British Olympic Association also condemned the ABA move as “extremely disappointing.” Edwards added: ” I am so sad that this, together with other allegations made, have been raised to distract and unsettle me, the coaching team, and more importantly my boxers ahead of the most important bouts of their lives.
"Over the past four years I have put together a programme which has produced the best ever Commonwealth Games results, three World Championship medallists, the most qualifiers for the Olympic Games since 1972. But more importantly I have tried to instil in my team a respect for themselves and others, and a sense of pride in competing for their country. I will thoroughly address all allegations made when I get back to the UK. Right now, I have three boxers who are fighting to win gold medals for Team GB, and I will not allow anything to distract them from what they need to do in the ring.”
Despite his successes, which also included masterminding Amir Khan’s silver medal in Athens. the ultra-professional Edwards has been out of favour with his blazered bosses for some time.They seem to think he wields too much infuence with the BOA and Government-backed funding body UK Sport. Before the team left for their pre-Beijing training camp in Macau he won a battle, backed by both organisations, to bring extra coaches.
The 65-year-old former London taxi driver said he only learned of Saunders’ suspension via the media. A member of a travelling family and great grandson of a bare knuckle champion, Saunders now faces an investigation into his behaviour during a pre-Games training camp in France. He was allegedly seen on a video, briefly posted on the Youtube website, making lewd remarks to a female French cleaner in a hotel corridor. Sources say the the word ‘knob’ was used.
Edwards' supporters accuse the ABA of privately mounting a campaign to discredit the head coach, alleging lack of discipline in the team and citing the failure of gold medal favourite Frankie Gavin's to make the Olympic weight.
Shortly before the team flew out for their pre-Games training camp in Macau, elements within the governing body reportedly threatened to withdraw the boxers' licences and pull them out of Beijing in a row over funding with UK Sport, who have been unhappy with aspects of ABA adminstration, notably its financial management.
Team GB's chef de mission Simon Clegg said here: "The ABA choosing yesterday to issue Billy Joe Saunders with a suspension relating to an incident which happened months before the Beijing Olympic Games is extremely disappointing. Releasing such allegations to the media at this time could prove detrimental to the critical preparations of the other three boxers who will be contesting to reach the final of the boxing competition tomorrow.
"We are frustrated that our athletes and the boxing coaching team will have to deal with this added pressure and distraction at this point in the Games. Nobody involved with boxing should be distracting the team at this time.”
The ABA’s chief executive Paul King has been in Beijing as a member of the committee of AIBA (the international goernikng body) but there has been little contact between him and the team and he is believed to have flown home.