The Bolton boy with Olympic gold within his grasp

Amir Khan is the UK's most exciting boxing prospect for years. As his family prepares to fly out to Athens, Paul Vallely visits the boxing club where his career began at the age of eight

Bolton Lads and Girls Club will be packed tonight when they set up a giant screen to watch the boxing, live from the Olympics in Athens. The club has 2,300 of the town's youths through its doors in any given week and tonight as many of them as the fire regulations will allow will cram inside to watch and cheer.

Bolton Lads and Girls Club will be packed tonight when they set up a giant screen to watch the boxing, live from the Olympics in Athens. The club has 2,300 of the town's youths through its doors in any given week and tonight as many of them as the fire regulations will allow will cram inside to watch and cheer.

For the Olympic hero on the screen, Amir Khan ­ who has already won a bronze medal and will tonight go for silver ­ first laced up a pair of boxing gloves in the club's gym after being sent there by his distracted father as a hyperactive eight-year-old. The 17-year-old contender for gold, who has been described as the most exciting British boxer for decades and even tipped as a future world champion, is a Bolton boy.

This week his mother, Falak Amir, resplendent in a peacock blue sari, picked her way bewilderedly through the crowds at Manchester Airport to catch the plane to Athens to watch the fight in person. Until now, she had watched only on the television. "Every time anyone hits him I feel the punch myself," she told her daughter Tabinda. But now even she felt she had to fly out to join Amir's father, uncles and cousins at the ringside. "He is a wonderful son and a wonderful person," she said just before she left, "and I am so very proud of him".

The striking thing to a visitor to Bolton this week is that the rest of the town seems no less proud of him than is his ecstatic Union flag-waving family. (His father even has a Union flag waistcoat to wear in the Peristeri boxing stadium).

"Fighting for all of us," is the headline in the local paper. Whites and Asians alike in this little Lancashire town ­ which has not been without its racial tensions even if it did manage to avoid the rioting which gripped other former mill-towns in the region ­ are united in their pride. The talk in the pubs and the postings on the Bolton Evening News website testify to that.

But nowhere is this more obvious than in the club where Amir's boxing career began. "He started when he was really young," recalled Tabinda, 18, as she prepared to board the Athens plane with her mother. "He was a really hyper lad in those days. My dad sent him to the gym to work off some of his excess energy."

Some things apparently do not change. The night I visited the club this week, the building was filled with eight- to 12-year-olds bursting with exuberance and vigour ­ in the gym, the boxing centre, the dance room, the drama group or just hanging out in the club's internet café. Yet whatever they were doing, almost without exception, they had all heard of Amir, who now threatens to eclipse the singer Badly Drawn Boy (real name Damon Gough) as the club's most famous alumnus.

Yet as soon as tonight's fight is over, the television will be switched off. "We have strict rules on telly," says the club's chief executive, Jeremy Glover, a Yorkshireman who has been forgiven his provenance on the other side of the Pennines after 25 years' working with the club. "Our reason for being here is to get kids active." In this sedentary age of computers, Game Boys and the television screen, "we don't care what they do," he adds, "so long as they do something."

Bolton Lads and Girls Club is in the very centre of Bolton. Founded in 1889 as a welfare society for under-age children working in the town's Victorian cotton mills, it has survived because, though the needs of local children have changed, they are, in a different way, just as pressing. The vast majority of the children who use it live in two city-centre wards which are among the most deprived and disadvantaged areas to be found anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The kids themselves, of course, do not articulate that. "We come here when we're bored at home," says Ali, aged 11. "If the club wasn't here, we'd just be playing out in the street."

"It's a place to hang out," says Katherine, eight. "And make friends," says Jessica, 11, "and do things." That night, she had been making juggling balls in the craft room, and had recently come back from a club trip to Antibes in the south of France.

The centre runs an after-school club, enablingworking parents, many of them single parents, to know that their kids are safe. "We try to get them to do a bit of homework, have something good to eat, and do a bit of sport each evening," says Mr Glover. But there is also an array of evening activities.

As well as craft, dance and drama sessions, there is a brain gym (computer room) and internet access at 1p a minute. "Paying for the website filter costs us more than providing the service," says Mr Glover ruefully. "But we fix the costs so that for just 40p an evening kids from very poor backgrounds can come in and get sports facilities of David Lloyd quality."

But the main emphasis is on sport. The club has a huge state-of-the-art gym, and offers basketball and badminton in a smart hall, boxing in a purpose-built centre and rock-climbing on a large artificial face donated by a local firm at the beginning of the year ­ since when 810 young people have used it. Some 40 kids, who a year ago had never heard of the sport, now list it as their favoured activity ­ in the middle of inner-city Bolton.

And, of course, there is soccer on the centre's floodlit Astroturf pitch. The club has no fewer than 19 football teams, including under-6s, girls and disabled squads.

So successful has all this been that the club last year moved into a new £5m building, paid for with £4m of sports lottery money but with £1m raised by the members themselves. Membership has doubled since. On a Sunday afternoon, the centre opens just for Muslim girls with an all-female staff.

At the heart of everything is the boxing gym. Of the centre's 2,500 users, just 70 are signed up for boxing, and yet the sport, says Mr Glover, is crucial to the fabric of club life. "There seem to be a lot of characters in boxing," he explains. "There's a great camaraderie in the section which seems to spread through the entire club."

It also sums up something about the role Bolton Lads and Girls Club plays in the life of this decent, old-fashioned working class town.

Down in the gym, Dave Court, who is 21, is stepping off the scales after a training session. "Seventy five kilos," he announces with satisfaction. "I've lost the 10 kilos I put on on holiday." Dave was, by his own admission, a bit of a tearaway until three years ago. "I wasn't going anywhere. I was just drinking all the time," he says, sitting on a bench by the side of the 16-by-16 training ring.

At his side Daniel Haley, 16, tells a similar story. "I was always in trouble at school. I'd get worked up, taking my aggression out on teachers and other kids, fighting in the street. Then I came here. Boxing teaches you to take out your aggression in the right way. Not just attack, attack, attack. But how you move around the ring. Jab, move away, jab, move away." He is joining the Army next month.

The air in the gym is high with the sweet-sour smell of leather mingled with sweat. But it exudes something else too: self-discipline, pride, confidence and self-esteem. The lads here know it. "Who knows where we'd be today without this?" Dave asks thoughtfully. As it is, they have travelled to box in Denmark, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Scotland and Ireland, and made friends wherever they have gone.

Amir Khan is an important part of all this. His story is not the same as theirs, but it has echoes. He came as an unruly boy,Tabinda recalls. "But from his very first fight, it was clear that it had some special effect on him. He had his first fight aged eight or nine. His mum and grandma weren't keen. They said: 'You'll get hurt.' But he had this confidence. Muhammad Ali became his hero. Those were the posters in his bedroom. It wasn't his religion, it was his style of fighting."

After a few years Amir switched from Bolton to Bury, after Bolton was left briefly without a coach. It was from Bury that he built a career which won him gold medals at the European Cadet Championship, the World Student Games, the International Junior Olympics and the International Under-19s Championships. But throughout it all, he still returned to his old club to spar ­ and to inspire those following behind him.

"It gives extra motivation to us because we know him," says Dave. "And he never takes liberties. He always slows things down to teach you. What he is doing will attract a lot of people to boxing."

But boxing has been more than a tool for self-development. It has expanded the social consciousness of lads like Daniel and Dave. "This place helps all kinds of people, not just boxers," says Dave. "Kids with disabilities. And they have outreach minibuses that tour the estates and collect kids off the street corners and bring them here. It's a place to go for them. Many of them have parents who have kicked them out. It's a sort of shelter."

About 100 young people a week are brought in in this way. The club's youth workers engage with gangs they find lurking about the town. "The kids hang around street corners and outside off-licences, starting drinking and smoking and getting into wayward ways," adds Mr Glover.

Many of them are then drawn into the club's mentoring project in which a team of youth workers and 100 volunteers give one-to-one support to kids having particular difficulties. These volunteers do not give up easily; the club's latest newsletter contains a report of a residential weekend for girls banned from the club for aggressive behaviour, some of whom had been sent home from previous residential trips. It had been an unqualified success.

"The fact that most of the adults are volunteers helps with the stroppier, lippier kids," says Mr Glover. "They don't have to be here. That's the big difference from school."

He pauses for a moment to think about Amir Khan ­ the young lad from Bolton who, if he wins tonight, will contend for the Olympic gold medal on Sunday ­ and then he says: "It is great for the town to have a Muslim hero, but it's greater still to have a hero who is just 17."

All around the gym walls, handmade notices are stuck by every punch bag. They say things like:

"I can. I will. I can do anything."

"I am the man."

"Winners never quit and quitters never win."

And "I am the one who can."

There is something about this place which makes you believe it.

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