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Reflecting on the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team
By Jill Diamond
I looked on as a disappointed fan; one who is involved in professional boxing and had hoped that these young fighters would breathe life into my diminishing sport. I looked on as a woman who, years ago, knew her husband was ill long before the tests confirmed it, because intimacy and relationship cannot be replaced by science and technology. I looked on, and then I looked away.
The best U.S. Olympic Boxing Team since 1984! Was the hype simply that?
We disrespect a boxer’s history when we ignore the elements that made him special. Worse, we put him at a disadvantage by disavowing the connective tissue that he shares with his true team.
At the time of peak performance, coach and boxer; aren’t they two people inhabiting one body? As Vince Lombardi said, “A talented coach gets inside a player and motivates.”
“Gets inside,” he said.
A gesture, a word, a glance, a nod. These nuances signal real partners to act synchronically. Can this happen when the coach who created the athlete is sitting on the sidelines, or worse, thousands of miles away watching his young soldier go into battle?
Can the long-term relationship between coach and athlete be duplicated with a familiar stranger?
Would Gary Russell Jr’s personal trainer have seen the signs of dehydration before Russell lay unconscious on his dormitory floor? Would Rau’shee Warren have heard any voice other than that of the coach he trusted when he surrendered, a point behind? Would Javier Molina’s trainer have let him step into the ring with “a not-life threatening but damaging hole in his lung”?
"Anytime there’s a new system, it’s a challenge to find the way to make it work," says Steve Roush, director of sports performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Maybe we bring the personal coaches in earlier, give them input from the beginning [of Olympic training], so we don’t have that we-versus-them mentality.”
I’m just an educated fan, and admittedly not an expert on amateur boxing. Still, I met these talented young boxers at Mendez Gym before they left for Beijing. I watched them go through their drills. I saw nothing that would forecast the morbid outcome of Olympic 2008. So, hungry for answers, I turned to the boxing community.
Here is the question I posed: “I’m doing an article on this year’s Olympic Boxing Team. The emphasis is on the coaching. My contention is that, in amateur boxing competitions, the U.S. separates the athlete from his personal coach, and this may hurt the athlete. Would you share your thoughts about this?”
The responses were passionate:
EMANUEL STEWART, HALL OF FAME BOXING TRAINER AND HBO COMMENTATOR:
The entire U.S. Amateur Boxing Program needs a complete overhaul. In 2002-2003, I was the National Director of coaching for the U.S. Amateur boxing program headquartered in Colorado Springs. During that time, I experienced much frustration plus my input and suggestions were seldom acted upon. In Beijing, the U.S. Boxing team’s performances was very disappointing which is not necessarily due to the fault of the U.S. Boxers or the coaches. The entire U.S. amateur boxing program needs a complete overhaul. Less than six years ago a very wealthy west coast multi-millionaire became involved in the U.S. Amateur boxing program. Over the course of the years, he himself invested millions, plus was responsible for organizing other business entities to become involved. He himself found it difficult, frustrating, and was unable to work with the people who make choices in changing the boxing program. His intentions was not only to revive the boxing program to its glory days of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s but to make it a very popular program where as not only would our amateur boxers compete better on a international level but become household names through the regular televised broadcasts and to increase the financial compensation to the amateur boxers while they remain amateur. Finally, he walked away from the U.S. Amateur boxing program. Because U.S. Amateur boxers often fail to participate in many International boxing events, our kids come into the Olympics with less experience and hostile feelings from other countries, officials and boxers. On top of that, our boxers deal with a selective, computerized scoring system that is usually not, favorable toward American boxers. In 1983 – 1984, I personally helped develop six boxers who won gold medals in the 1984 Olympics: Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Pernell Whitaker, Steve McCrory, Tyrell Biggs and Jerry Page. The U.S. Amateur program and coaching staff in Colorado Springs often discourages relationships and coaching between the boxers and their own coaches. How can you dismiss the coach who is responsible for and responds to the needs of that athlete? These are the coaches who got them to this point. If it was up to me, I would not only want the personal coaches with the boxer; I’d pay their expenses and put them in the boxer’s corners. Nothing else makes sense.
BRUCE SILVERGLADE, OWNER GLEASONS GYM:
In the past, personal coaches were allowed at all events including the Olympics. They had to pay their own way. I see no harm in allowing the personal trainer to assist the designated U.S.A Boxing coach. The U.S.A Boxing coach must have final say on matters concerning the individual athletes and their team commitments. [But] the personal trainer is the one responsible for getting the athlete to the level of competition where he can represent the U.S.A. He should be able to continue with his training and influence on the boxer. My opinion is that the personal trainer belongs near his athlete.
BOBBY GOODMAN, V.P. DON KING PROMOTIONS:
To begin with, there aren’t as many good trainers and teachers around the game as there once were, and that’s sad. A lot of very good people work hard in the business training and teaching these young kids and, when they get the chance to move up, are told they can’t go? There’s always been an Olympic coach and some of them were very excellent trainers. The fighters, however, do have a rapport with their own coaches who know their every move and capabilities. It’s very tough to change when they come up to their biggest stage. It’s so sad that I had to try and flip around channels so that I could even find boxing because I didn’t really care about the badminton match. Boxing was once a major highlight of the Olympics, not something you had to try and find on some cable affiliate. Our Olympic Boxing Team got no respect and no recognition and they performed up to the expectations. It’s not only the trainers -- it’s the whole picture. It’s the lack of care for an entire sport. Boxing helped make the television networks what they are today and helped build those very networks that are so uncaring today. They should all be ashamed of themselves.
HAROLD LEDERMAN, TV COMMENTATOR AND FORMER JUDGE:
The fact that the United States Olympic Boxing Team has won so few medals in the past few years leads me to believe that we need a radical change in the way we approach the Olympics. I believe our athletes are as good as those produced anywhere in the world. The trick is to get the best out of them. We have the best nutritional coaches, the best training methods, the finest gyms, and the most experienced athletes. What’s wrong is the appointment of one guy to train an entire team and completely cut out each fighter’s individual coach, who always knows his fighter better than anyone else. I think we should let each fighter work with whomever he decides to work with, and only have an "Olympic Boxing Coach" to coordinate training times, places, travel, schedules, etc. I think with this guidance, each kid will put out more and be more relaxed and ready to take on the world. Our team needs change. I think this is the direction.
STEVE FARHOOD, TV COMMENTATOR AND JOURNALIST:
Female Chinese gymnasts get taken at three years of age and develop without contact with their families. These men are away for ten months and they get homesick. I think they’re big babies. Olympic Amateur Boxing and Pro Boxing are wider apart than ever. An American fighter must make a decision - do I want Olympic success or to develop as pro? The styles are too different. An example of this is their age. The American’s are fighting much older men who never turn pro. These American kids are thinking about how much money they’ll make as a pro instead of learning the amateur system.
JOHN E. ODEN, AUTHOR, WHITE COLLAR BOXER:
I think that the answer to the U.S.A Boxing Team’s problems lies in the area of poor coaching. I have watched most of the matches until now (which means I have watched most of the matches that are going to take place, because Deontay Wilder is the last man standing for team U.S.A.) I have not seen half a dozen jabs thrown in all the matches I have watched. The team can’t throw a jab! A jab thrown by several of these fighters would have made a big difference. My take is that it is simply bad coaching. A second area would be bad communication by the coaches to the boxers (which also comes under the category of bad coaching). I was amazed when Rau’ shee Warren thought he was one point ahead in the last round, instead of one point behind. Can’t the coaches find a way to communicate with their boxers? When Sadam Ali abandoned his strategy after falling behind in round one when he was behind by one point, and then went on to lose by 15 points, where were the coaches to pull him back into line? Gary Russell couldn’t make weight? Why weren’t the coaches on top of this, given the importance of the occasion? Both amateur and professional boxing were dominated by America in the 20th Century. Certainly, there have been some great coaches that helped the American boxers achieve success over the decades. Now, all of a sudden, we are relegated to one bronze medal in the Olympics. As a former boxer myself, I like rotating coaches on occasion, and learn something from all who have coached me. But I have always been blessed with good coaching, supervision and advice. I question if the U.S.A Boxing Team was as fortunate this year, given my televised observations from thousands of miles away.
CARINA MORENO, WBC WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPION, NATIONAL GOLDEN GLOVES WINNER:
I think that the coach that gets you there should be by your side coaching you. I’ve been a three-time member of the U.S.A Women’s Boxing Team and have been to the first two training camps. And sometimes the coaches are not familiar with your style. Sometimes they want you to change your style. I have watched some of the Olympic boxing and our boxer’s have not looked that good. It seems to me that the coaches should have told them not to leave it in the hands of the judges. They were going out not to lose, instead of going out to win.
JOE DEGUARDIA, PROMOTER AND FORMER GOLDEN GLOVES BOXER:
I agree that barring an athlete’s longtime, personal coaches from assisting in the training and working the corner of Olympic boxers can negatively affect the athlete’s performance. Oftentimes, the personal coach knows the mind and body of the boxer better than anyone else. Training a fighter is very personal, and it often takes time to develop the bond and trust between a coach and boxer. Both physically and mentally, the long-time coach and boxer have a personal and special connection that is extremely difficult to attain in any setting, let alone a setting such as the Olympic Training Center and competition, where all boxers are trained by the same ’team’ coach. As a former amateur boxer with over 100 amateur fights, I certainly identify with a boxer’s ’comfort zone’ and the feeling of confidence that comes with having your ’own’ coach in the corner and by your side. While I fought in international competition without my coach (my father, a former pro boxer, who had trained me daily since I was 5 years old), I can tell you that I always felt that something was ’missing’ in my corner.
SPARKLE LEE, REFEREE:
I totally agree that it is not beneficial to our Amateur boxers to have made it to the 2008 Olympic Boxing Team and not be allowed to have their personal coaches. The 2008 Olympic Boxing Team had the most talented boxers from all over United States and surprisingly they all have been eliminated; with the exception of one. What the heck happened? I truly believe that there are a lot of ego issues overriding the ultimate goal. The goal should be for our fighters to win!! The boxers themselves tried to speak up in regards to their dislikes as it relates to this year’s coaching, but it seems that they were not heard. You cannot beat the best fighters from around the world if the leadership or coaching staff is not the best. I believe that changes should be made in the coaching department due to the overwhelming negative outcome of our boxers.
MIKE KOZLOWSKI, COACH RUSSIA, ISRAEL, PANAMA, U.S.:
This year’s team had as much potential as the winning 1976 Olympic Team, and the coaches destroyed them. The boxers needed their own coaches. You can’t blame the scoring system because it applies to everyone who participates. It’s simply that the world is getting more skilled while the Americans aren’t. When I was in Russia, we learned from the Americans. Maybe now, we need to learn from them. The 2008 Team lacked passion in the ring. They looked like they came to work, not to fight. There was no fire. Sadly, this U.S. team would have been the dream team for coaches from the former Soviet Union. You want talented young men like this. I am upset for the boxers.
JACKIE KALAN, BOXING MANAGER:
How are we supposed to compete with the elite athletes of the world when our fighters are pulled away from their lifelong coaches and put with someone who is basically a stranger? Boxing is not a team sport. It is a highly individualized sport and most boxers have worked with the same coach since they first put on the gloves. The relationship is like a marriage in many ways. The athlete and the trainer bond and begin to know each other’s moods, skills, and innuendos. They can communicate without even speaking. They have code words or phrases and respond to each other on a spiritual level. When you take a boxer away from his principal trainer and put him with someone who does not know his unique style, quirks and habits, it is like taking Popeye’s spinach away or cutting Samson’s hair. If the U.S. is ever going to dominate in boxing again and bring home medals--they need to seriously revise their system. Otherwise--we will continue to come home empty-handed.
SHELLY FINKEL, BOXING MANAGER AND CONSULTANT:
I’m sure separating the boys from their coaches has some effect. But it’s the scoring. You have kids in the different countries training to score for a computer, not to beat someone in the ring. That’s ridiculous. In ‘76 and ‘84, they had Pat (Burns) and he had an assistant and it didn’t make a difference. So their own coaches? It would help but it’s not the only factor.
BRIAN ADAMS, FORMER GOLDEN GLOVES CHAMPION:
That is a tricky question and hard to answer objectively. Because the USOC (Olympic Committee) pays coaches to coach the athletes, so why pay these coaches if the athletes are going to train with their own personal coaches? Plus, once you make the Olympic team, you have to be committed to the USOC, and it’s hard to keep an eye on these guys if they are all out doing their own thing. Look at the U.S. Basketball team. The CEO of the Olympic committee makes them do a three-year commitment and they have to work out together as a team in the off-season of the NBA. I don’t hear the NBA guys complaining that they are not allowed to play for their own head coach in the Olympics. Another issue is the fact that it has always been like that in the past. Sugar Ray Leonard, the Spinks Brothers, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, I can go on and on that have won Olympic Gold and none of their personal trainers were in the corner during the games. These athletes today need to understand that things will not always go the way they want. And then, maybe, just maybe, we can start winning some medals at these games. Bottom line is that everyone is making excuses and the fact of the matter (in my opinion) is that the boxers today are not being properly taught. And who is to blame for that? Their own trainers. Excuses, excuses, are all that the boxing world makes. I’m in favor of the resident program that Dan Campbell implemented because it gives him and the athletes a chance to bond and understand one another’s style and habits. Instead of complaining about it the athletes should have embraced it and given it a chance. The personal trainers are bitching because their faces aren’t being plastered on television. That confirms the whole notion that it’s not about the athlete. I can go on and on, but I’ll stop because I get so frustrated when I see the sport being ruined.
MARGARET GOODMAN, MD, JOURNALIST THE RING:
The recent health issues surrounding our boxers in Beijing are of great concern and should not be ignored. Certainly, making weight plagues our sport. But the idea that one of our Olympians should be found dehydrated and unconscious before a contest speaks to how medical soundness and fitness seem to be taking a back seat. How could Javier Molina have been cleared to fight with his pulmonary issues? This has to have reflected on the performances of our talented athletes, and they deserved more. We can blame the judges, the referees and the Olympic scoring system. But we need to look within the training system; the way boxers are placed into weight classes, and have all amateur boxers undergo more extensive medical evaluations before they’re cleared to compete.
REX WALKER, PRESIDENT, NABF:
I really have no comments about Olympic boxing that could be positive. So many elements go into the Olympic Boxing that are not fair, including the ridiculous scoring, that it has lost all of its importance in the boxing world.
The 2008 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team was:
106 lbs: Luis Yanez, Duncanville, Texas
112 lbs: Rau’shee Warren, Cincinnati, Ohio
119 lbs: Gary Russell, Jr., Capitol Heights, Md.
125 lbs: Raynell Williams, Cleveland, Ohio
132 lbs: Sadam Ali, Brooklyn, N.Y.
141 lbs: Javier Molina, Commerce, Calif.
152 lbs: Demetrius Andrade, Providence, R.I.
165 lbs: Shawn Estrada, Downey, Calif.
178 lbs: Christopher Downs, Fort Carson, Colo.
201 lbs: Deontay Wilder, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
201+ lbs: Michael Hunter, Las Vegas, Nev.
Win or lose, these are our boys. They were carrying the expectations of a country that hasn’t been gold-less since 1948.
Put a face on those names. I think they deserved better.
The boxers should be amateurs, not the system.
Jill Diamond is the Chair of World Boxing Cares. She can be reached by email at email@example.com
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