The Decline of American Boxing Part 4

Changing Colours

VladimirVitaliy

In his infamous book “Taboo“, Jon Entine asks the reader to imagine an alien, unfamiliar with Earth, sent to observe sport on the planet. The alien, he says, would be struck by the dominance of black athletes in four sports: basketball, football, boxing and running.

It is a shaky start to a text which remains tremulous throughout. Scientific speculations cannot properly be investigated by considering the first impressions of a naive visitor.

But, even on its own terms, it is out of date just fifteen years after being published, after the Sydney Olympics. Professional heavyweight boxing is dominated by the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers (above). Despite the proliferation of belts, there were no American champions between 2007 and 2015 and only 3 of the 10 distinct champions were black.

There is a similar pattern in Olympic boxing. Two super heavyweight champions in the last five Games have been black British fighters but the other three have all been white.

In November, Wladimir Klitschko will face a new challenger, another Briton, Tyson Fury (below), who is one of an increasing number of boxers to have an Irish Traveller heritage.

Tyson fury

Country or Race?

Entine makes two mistakes, both of which are all too common. Firstly, he attributes the dominance of a small number of countries to the dominance of a particular ethnic group.

What seemed to be an advantage for black boxers was more a reflection of the strength of the United States, while the apparent advantage of white boxers is the success of ex- communist states. Recent challengers have been Russian, Uzbek, Polish and Bulgarian.

Entine’s other examples suffer from a similar problem. Kenya remains just as powerful in distance running, and most Kenyans are black, but what will happen if Kenya loses its edge and, as with boxing, a different region becomes pre-eminent in the sport instead?

Not the End of History

Entine is aware of the currents of history. He describes how Jewish basketball players were once commonplace before fresh opportunities took them away from that arena.

But he seems to believe that the waters have calmed, perhaps permanently, that black people, unlike Jewish people, have never been pushed into sport through lack of choice. Or that they will never be overtaken by competitors from another country altogether.

This is his second mistake. Even a forty year dynasty of African American heavyweights was not enough to hold back the tide, the inevitable ebb and flow of patterns of success.

It is the lesson of Canute and it applies to the king of any sport. The moment he thinks that his reign is “natural”, that he has a divine right to rule, is the moment that he begins to lose his grip on power. And, as with boxing in the USA, the crown could so easily slip.

Next week: An events preview of the upcoming London Sports Writing Festival at Lord’s

Who’s Going to Rio?

Review of the week: 19 – 26 October 2015

Markus Rehm in the air. (3562624300)

IPC World Athletics Championships

The world’s fastest disabled athletes both made an early appearance. Visually impaired sprinters Jason Smyth of Ireland and Omara Durand of Cuba confirmed their status, in the 100m for Smyth and the 200 and 400m for Durand, who is likely to add a third gold.

But the stratospheric performer of the opening few days was Markus Rehm of Germany (above), who launched himself to 8.40m in the long jump, a distance which would have won gold at the London 2012 Olympics, and silver at the recent World Championships.

This begs two questions. Should Rehm compete at the Olympics, where a medal would be a real possibility? And does he have an advantage that would make it unfair to do so?

Does Rehm have an argument?

The IAAF would prefer that he did not take part. It allowed Oscar Pistorius to compete but only after it lost a case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. His German federation feels the same way and has so far refused to select Rehm for international competition.

The IAAF has also changed the rules so that an athlete has to prove that his prosthesis gives him no advantage. The absence of any clear research now benefits the IAAF and makes it unlikely that there will be a repeat of the Pistorius verdict. In any event, Rehm says that he has no appetite for court. He will be in Rio but for the Paralympics alone.

I doubt that there is any great injustice here, because my hunch is that Rehm does get an edge by jumping from his blade. But the attitude of the IAAF troubles me. If I was in its shoes, and trying to produce fair rules, I would not be satisfied with relying on a hunch.

Glasgow 2014 - Hockey (16) Fergus Kavanagh

Oceania Cup Hockey

It is easy to get lost in the qualification rules for Olympic hockey. Both Australian teams qualified months ago so winning the Oceania Cup might seem not to make a  difference.

But the result opens up new qualification places and sends Japan’s women and Ireland’s men to Rio, without playing again. For Ireland, it will be the first appearance since 1908.

The final spot will be filled after the African Championships this week, at least in theory. But South Africa has indicated that it will not send any teams to Rio, even if it does win.

If South Africa withdraws, New Zealand’s men and Spain’s women will benefit. But the South African players might lack motivation, giving an opportunity to the likes of Egypt.

Rugby Union and Windsurfing

Australia and New Zealand will meet again next week, in the final of the Rugby World Cup, having both negotiated their semi-finals. Meanwhile, in Oman, the Windsurfing World Championships were won by Pierre Le Coq of France and Peina Chen of China.

World Artistic Gymnastics Championships

If hockey qualification is like a maze, gymnastics qualification resembles the Labyrinth of Ancient Crete, and Olympic pommel horse champion, Krisztian Berki, seems to have been gored by the Minotaur. His Hungarian team failed to qualify and he lost his chance of the medal needed to secure an individual place. 2020 will see an overdue rule change.

Like Rehm and South Africa’s hockey players, Berki has done all that he can. But so much of their fate depends, not on their own hard work, but on the whims of sporting officials.

Next week: The conclusion of IPC athletics, world gymnastics and the Rugby World Cup

The Decline of American Boxing Part 3

Silky Skills along the Silk Road

KazMunayGas HQ

After Serik Sapiyev won gold at London 2012, he took part in a parade through Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But this was not the only celebration in his honour in the city. He was also a guest, at what was described, as the “solemn opening” of a petrol station.

No prizes for guessing that KazMunayGas, which runs the petrol station, is a sponsor of the national boxing team. But while its commercial tactics are familiar, its structure may not be. For KazMunayGas is almost entirely owned by the government of Kazakhstan.

Like most Olympic sports, boxing was once a clash between capitalism and communism. But, since the Cold War came to an end, the world has become a lot more complicated.

State capitalism

State capitalism is a hybrid between two systems. Its profits are given to the state but it drives for these profits as voraciously as the most aggressive transnational corporation.

Government buildings under communism were once characterised by the architecture of functional blocks. The headquarters of KazMunayGas (above) look rather different.

There are some doubts about the long-time viability of state capitalism as an economic strategy. But as a way of developing elite sportspeople, it has considerable advantages.

The private funders of athletes have little interest in winning Olympic medals – it is the celebrity which can follows that interests them. But state corporations can benefit their “shareholders” by bringing prestige to the country in the international sporting arena.

When the state is involved, there is an incentive to invest more money in more athletes.

RIAN archive 585194 Boxers Serik Konakabayev and Jose Aguilar

Kazakhstan has always had good boxers. Serik Konakbayev (above left) earned a silver medal at the 1980 Olympics. But getting into the Soviet team was highly competitive.

When the Soviet Union broke up, it created more opportunities for Kazakh boxers, and more opponents for American ones. The biggest change is that many of the post-Soviet nations then adopted state capitalism, Kazakhstan with more enthusiasm than most.

And Olympic boxing is no longer strictly amateur, so money matters more than it once did. The World Series of Boxing has twice been won by the Astana Arlans, a franchise bankrolled by KazMunayGas. The number of US teams has dropped from three to one.

Even in the worst nightmares of a Tea Party member, it is inconceivable that the United States would ever adopt state capitalism. And there are many alternatives. A common model in the West is for central government to invest directly in sports development.

Is it really un-American to shoot for the stars and stripes to be raised at the Olympics?

Kazakh boxing is like a car which drives inexorably forward – KazMunayGas is on hand to top up the petrol whenever necessary. For US boxing, by contrast, the ghostly knock of an empty gas tank can be heard. There is a danger of it spluttering to a complete halt.

Next week: Heavyweight boxing champions used to be black. Now they are white. Why?

The End of the Old Guard?

Review of the week: 12 – 18 October 2015

British Team Cycling at the 2012 Summer Olympics – Women's team pursuit

Boxing came to Cuba under American influence. Although it would later convert to communism, the United States helped it to become independent from Spain in 1902, and Havana staged world title fights. Its first professional world champion was Eligio Sardinas, or Kid Chocolate, in 1931, long before Fidel Castro puffed on his first cigar.

But now the student has surpassed the teacher. In Doha, at the World Amateur Boxing Championships, Cuba maintained its decades long period of dominance by winning four golds, while the US finished with no medals of any colour, for the second time in a row.

And new nations are emerging as well. From Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan won multiple medals but no golds this year, Morocco won its second world title, and Ireland won its first, for Michael Conlan. Ireland has fared well at recent Olympics too, in a regime started by a Cuban coach. The former student has now become a teacher.

In cycling, Great Britain has also overtaken more traditional powers in the last twenty years. The women’s pursuit team which won at London 2012 (above) continues to beat all comers, from Europe at least, although world champions Australia will be tougher.

At those same European Championships, two members of the team won two more gold medals each, Laura Trott in the scratch race and the omnium, and Katie Archibald in the individual pursuit and the elimination race. But in the sprints, the British seem to have been usurped by the Dutch, who surprisingly won the individual events for both sexes.

France, the old guard of cycling, had appeared to be making a comeback. But its six time world champion, Francois Pervis, was disappointing, taking home a single silver medal.

20140826 - press conference - FIVB Volleyball Men's World Championship - France men's national volleyball team 01

In volleyball, the roles were reversed. The French team (above), without much history of success, became European champions, while Italy and Poland were shocked by Slovenia.

But neither France nor defeated finalist Slovenia is guaranteed to travel to Rio because the European Championship is not used as a qualifying event. There is a long way to go.

The old guard did have some victories this week. At the World Championships of 470 class sailing, Matthew Belcher of Australia won a sixth gold in a row. And the Olympian, Natalia Partyka of Poland, secured European singles and team titles in para table tennis.

But the last word belongs to Zimbabwe’s women’s football team. In an earlier round of the Olympic qualifying tournament, it could not afford to travel to the Ivory Coast and conceded the match 3-0. But the Ivory Coast withdrew and it went on to play Cameroon which it beat to qualify. French cyclists and US boxers surely know how Cameroon feels.

Next week: Doha goes from one major global event to another – IPC World Athletics

The Decline of American Boxing Part 2

The Importance of Going to College

BillyMills cropped

Billy Mills is glad that he went to university. A destitute orphan on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, his athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas made an enormous contribution to his career. He won a surprise 10,000m gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Mills originally wanted to be a boxer and only took up running as part of his training for the ring. But his student days coincided with the discontinuation of college boxing. Had he not switched sports, the disruption might have made such a victory even less likely.

Natalie Coughlin (below) is equally glad that she went to university. Female swimmers have a reputation for starting young, too young for a college scholarship to matter. But not so for Coughlin – a shoulder injury curtailed her Olympic dream at the age of 16.

Her ambition hanging by a thread, she left for the University of California in Berkeley. She recovered her muscle strength and her motivation and now, 12 medals later, she is tied with two of her compatriots as the most decorated female swimmer of all time.

Coughlin’s story could have been very different indeed. As she herself put it, “If college wasn’t around, and I wasn’t going to get a free education out of it, I would have quit.”

Natalie Coughlin

As a model of sports development, the US college system passes summa cum laude. It is arguably the best in world. It works for athletes by giving access to high quality training and facilities and, for poor students like Mills, it is their best chance of earning a degree.

Universities benefit from the morale-boosting prestige of having the stars of the future compete for their varsity teams. And, unlike top clubs, they don’t even have to give them wages. One particularly scathing study of college sport is called “Unpaid Professionals“.

It saves the government money too. Athletes emerge, almost fully formed, in their early twenties, without the state having to contribute a single dime. This suits the ideological opposition to government spending which characterises so much of American politics.

The US is one of a handful of countries where the state does not support its athletes. For the patriotic Voice of America, this reflects the country’s values and is a matter of pride.

But the system’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. It works almost too well. It creates the illusion that financial help is never necessary when, in reality, it often is.

This is especially true of boxing. A more sober analysis by the Washington Post suggests that sports without big college programmes have a major disadvantage. It discusses the varsity sports which are still shrinking – college boxing shrank to nothing fifty years ago.

Unless boxing is sanctioned by the NCAA once again, the United States might have to emulate its rivals by investing in the sport. Its universities graduate with distinction in the art of producing Olympic athletes but they do not quite manage to score full marks.

Next week: The boxing revolution taking place in the emerging economy of Kazakhstan

Rise of the Minnows

Review of the week: 5 – 11 October 2015

Cubo Torres

Mexico is not a minnow. It is the reigning Olympic champion in football, having shocked Brazil in the final in 2012. This week’s 2-0 victory against Canada, with a goal from Cubo Torres (above), has given it the opportunity to defend its title, in less than a year’s time.

But Mexico aside, small countries have been making a disproportionate impact. Wales, Northern Ireland and Albania qualified for Euro 2016, with Iceland already having done so. And Honduras stunned the United States in Utah, to join Mexico at the Rio Games.

Honduras may be small but it is consistent – Rio will be its third consecutive Olympic tournament. Apart from Brazil, none of the other qualifiers so far can make that boast.

This week’s only world championship was the Kimberley Diamond Cup. Skateboarding is a sport whose stock is rising after its proposal for inclusion in Tokyo 2020. The blue riband street event was won by the 2013 champion, Nyjah Huston of the United States.

The African championship was also held and the three medallists were all from another tiny place, Reunion, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

Réunion Demi-Piton PlaineDesSables

Why Reunion? I think it has a lot to do with its volcanic landscape. The empty twisty roads (above) make it a perfect location for practicing the sport, and it is becoming an increasingly popular destination with the skateboarders of other countries as well.

This is not a unique phenomenon. Consider the fact that Switzerland is often where triathletes go to train but the country’s athletes also perform rather well in the sport.

This week’s triathlon was the Ironman in Hawaii, a gruelling event which is far longer than its Olympic counterpart and typically attracts a different type of athlete. But, in a rare feat, it was won this year by the 2008 Olympic champion, Jan Frodeno of Germany.

The European Men’s Sitting Volleyball Championship was claimed by the holder of the Paralympic title, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which reached the final without losing a set.

Many of Bosnia’s volleyball players are rehabilitated victims of its civil war, and the land mines which it left behind but, if we look behind this grisly explanation, there is another which more generally applies to small nations who perform much better than expected.

Despite its past, Bosnia has few bladerunners or wheelchair athletes. These sports are simply too competitive and too expensive for it to stand a chance. Instead, it focuses all of its attention on volleyball while its larger opponents spread themselves more thinly.

In a world of too much choice, the limitations of small size might even be an advantage.

Next week: World boxing, European track cycling, para table tennis and 470 class sailing

The Decline of American Boxing Part 1

The Year of Triumph and Tragedy

Members of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team in 1924

Before the 1924 Olympics, the US boxing team (above) left for Paris in good spirits. Its confidence proved to be entirely justified as it returned home with six medals, a quarter of those awarded. Many similarly impressive hauls would follow in the coming decades.

More recent American boxers have had the edge over their 1924 counterparts in posing for photographs, but have been markedly less successful in the ring. The United States won just 2 medals at the 2004 Games and just 1 in 2008. Countries such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Great Britain and even Thailand have won more medals over the same period.

The nadir came in London 2012 where the US men won no medals at all. National pride was only saved by the introduction of women’s boxing, and a gold for Claressa Shields.

So, when did it all start to go wrong? I think that the key event took place much earlier than might be anticipated. It was a genuine tragedy which happened in the year 1960.

Boxing light-heavyweight 1960 Olympics

It might seem an eccentric choice. After all, 1960 was the date of one of the most famous American boxing medals, a gold for Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, in Rome (above).

It was the start of a long period of dominance, which lasted until 1984, in both amateur boxing and the professional game. Every world heavyweight champion from 1960 until 1983 was from the United States. This was the glorious era of Ali and Frazier, Foreman and Spinks, all of whom had won Olympic gold medals before they turned professional.

But behind the triumphs, there were signs of danger. Just weeks before Rome, another boxer, Charlie Mohr, defended his NCAA college championship title. He suffered a brain haemorrhage and died eight days later. The NCAA would never sanction the sport again.

Before 1960, college programmes had been an important source of Olympic talent. In 1952, Americans boxers won five gold medals, including victories for Chuck Adkins and Ed Sanders. Adkins had won the NCAA title the same year, and Sanders, from the Watts district of Los Angeles, had the benefit of an athletic scholarship to Idaho State College.

Things would never be the same again. There would be no more scholarships. Even in a recent article about the revival of college boxing, there is, tellingly, a plea for donations.

At first, the loss of NCAA support did not make much difference. This was the amateur era when, except for shamateurs in the Soviet Union and its allies, few athletes received significant state funding. However, since the Cold War ended, this is no longer the case.

There is a real possibility that, if the United States does not come up with a solution, it will never find anybody to emulate the feats of Muhammad Ali. Instead, its boxers could find themselves floating and stinging as if they have just been sprayed with insecticide.

Next week: Why is US college sport so important for producing Olympic champions?

Little Trouble for Big China

Review of the week: 28 September – 4 October 2015

Yi Jian Lian Jumper (2752691654)

One of my favourite untrue stories in Olympic history concerns the American basketball player, Bob Kurland, part of the gold-medal winning team at the 1948 London Games. It is said that a Chinese opponent scored a basket after dribbling the ball through his legs.

This tall tale is easily disproved by noting that China and the USA did not meet during the tournament, but it is compelling because it fits an expectation that Chinese players are short. That is also untrue – when they did meet in 2008, China had the taller team.

Kurland, one of the earliest slam dunkers, was often described as being 7 feet tall but he insisted that he wasn’t quite, except maybe in the summer. Even he would have looked up to Li Jianlian (above right), who hits the mark without a need to wait for hot weather.

Li was the Most Valuable Player at the Asian Basketball Championship this week, as China won the event and qualified for Rio. The Philippines, Iran and Japan finished in second, third and fourth, and will now go into the final stage of Olympic qualification.

Mondial Ping -Women's Singles - Quarterfinal - Zhu Yuling-Feng Tianwei - 18

In table tennis, China is a giant among pygmies, and it towered over its opponents again at the Asian Table Tennis Championships. Fan Zhengdong achieved a rare maximum of four titles, with victories in singles, men’s and mixed doubles, and the team competition.

Zhu Yuling (above) won her first singles title in dramatic circumstances. Her opponent, Chen Meng, was suddenly unable to continue and was rushed to hospital in great pain.

Elsewhere in Asia, Tokyo 2020 organisers proposed five new sports for the programme. Baseball and karate are both very popular in Japan and came as little surprise, but sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing and were more unexpected choices. The IOC may well conclude that Tokyo has overreached its ambition and veto some of the selections.

There were problems in Rio as the BMX test event was first delayed then cancelled but Mariana Pajon of Colombia recorded the best time to make her the favourite to retain her title next year. Senegal won the women’s AfroBasket to qualify for the 2016 Games.

Russia continued its success in women’s volleyball with a sixth European title and there were table tennis medals at stake in Europe as well. Austria won its first ever team gold medal and Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany efficiently defended his men’s singles crown.

Chinese dominance has reached such heights that it has now spread west. Six different winners of the European women’s singles have been born in China, in the last twelve championships. This year, Li Jie of the Netherlands was hoping to become the seventh.

But Li lost in the final to Elizabetha Samara, born and bred in Romania, a result which could be described as something of a shock. It might even be said to be a giantkilling.

Next week: Sitting volleyball and Olympic football qualification in North America

Canoeing in Hungary Part 4

Raising the Flag

Szétlőtt harckocsi a Móricz Zsigmond körtéren

1956 was the year of a famous water polo match. Players from Hungary and the Soviet Union fought in the pool resulting in blood in the water and a near riot from spectators.

The trigger had been some dramatic events in Budapest a month early. Soviet tanks had arrived in the city to crush a demonstration against communist rule, but the people of Hungary rebelled. They attacked the tanks (above) and then took control of the country.

The communists would soon regain power but the revolutionary government remained in place when many Hungarian athletes departed, by ship, for the Melbourne Olympics.

Like Hungary’s footballers, stranded after a European Cup tie in Spain, there would be far reaching consequences, not only for its water polo players, but also for its canoeists.

1956z

The biggest headache for Australian officials was keeping the flags up to date but they may not have appreciated the assistance of some local Hungarian immigrants, who tore down the flag in the Olympic Village and ripped the communist emblem from its centre.

They replaced it with a revolutionary flag, which had a black sash across it as a symbol of mourning. The flag is now in a museum in Hungary (above). According to the sign, it was taken home and hidden until the end of the Cold War by water polo player, Laszlo Jeney.

To defect or not to defect? That was the question for many of Hungary’s Olympians. The 1954 world championships had been a great breakthrough for its canoeists but it would have to find new talent as many of its medallists sought asylum elsewhere, among them Zoli Szigeti, who chose to remain in Australia, where he became a national team coach.

Melbourne silver medallist, Istvan Hernek, whose parents had been seized by the secret police, travelled to the United States as a refugee, with 33 team mates, aided by Sports Illustrated magazine. But Cecilia Hartmann was not told a thing about the opportunity. She returned to Hungary and it took six years for her to reach safety back in Melbourne.

Hartmann had trained on the Danube, as did two young canoeists, Ivan Gaal and Gyorgy Molnar, whose touching story is told in a short documentary film. After the revolution failed, Gaal defected to Australia, although he was not part of the Olympic team, while Molnar was drafted into the Hungarian army. They would not speak again for 55 years.

While the Danube brought the canoeists together, a brutal regime had split them apart.

Next week: One of those great sporting mysteries, what happened to American boxing?