LONDON (Reuters) - Four years ago Amir Khan could have been forgiven for feeling a bit lonely in Athens: after all he was the only British boxer to qualify.
Khan went on to win a silver medal, became a household name, turned professional shortly afterwards and is now tipped for a world title fight in the not-too-distant future.
Four years on, eight British fighters are heading for Beijing and their head coach is predicting Britain’s best Olympic medal haul from the boxing ring.
Since pre-qualification came into force for the 1992 Barcelona Games, Britain has never had so many boxers through to the Olympics.
Four of the eight earned their tickets to China through the world championships, including lightweight Frankie Gavin who became Britain’s first world amateur champion in Chicago last November.
“Not only did we qualify four boxers, we came away with three medals and Frankie became the first fighter in the history of British boxing to win the world championship,” the team’s head coach Terry Edwards told Reuters.
Edwards, a coaching veteran of three Olympic Games and five world championships, works with the team at amateur boxing’s base in Sheffield.
He firmly believes the two boxing golds achieved by Terry Spinks and Dick McTaggart at the 1956 Games in Melbourne will be bettered and says Britain can emulate Cuba’s past successes in the Olympic ring.
”I won’t set targets but if they all box to their potential, and given a fair draw, then we have got a better than average chance of more medals than we have (had) in recent times,“ he said. ”They can exceed the 1956 total.
”I honestly believe we can be the next Cuba,“ he added. ”We have competed and beaten the Cubans in the last 15 months.
“People might say it was a silly thing to say but I promise you I’ve been around the block once or twice. If we keep the structure and the finance in place until 2012 then I believe that GB will be the new Cuba.”
”Take (welterweight) Billy Joe Saunders: he’s just 18 but I took him to a tournament in Bulgaria and he boxed the number one Cuban, the best boxer in the Cuban championships, and Billy Joe beat him. He can win gold in Beijing.
“(Middleweight) James Degale beat the gold medalist from Athens, he put him on his arse. They’ve proved they can hold their own. Given a fair wind we can do exceptionally well.”
While the professional game has enjoyed heady times of late with boxers such as Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton, the amateur set-up has undergone a revolution in the wake of Khan’s performance in Athens.
No longer do the country’s brightest talents have to hold down a “day job.” Everything is provided and they have a back-up team that is the envy of the world.
”The first thing you need is a very talented group of boxers,“ Edwards said. ”Then you need funding. Thanks to the extra money which came in 2006 we were able to identify potential podium boxers and put them on a full-time program.
“We’ve never done that before. We used to compete against the Cubans and the Russians who were full-time athletes. For the first time we’re on a level playing field.”
Nowadays, Britain’s Olympic boxers live a comfortable lifestyle and are surrounded by physiotherapists, sports psychologists and physical conditioners.
However, if it were not for Khan, amateur boxing might still be playing catch-up with the sport’s traditional superpowers. Olympic gold is now regarded as the pinnacle and the rush to turn professional has slowed.
“The legacy that Amir left us was that, at one stage, we hemorrhaged so many to the professional game,” Edwards said.
“It was enormous. Now our boxers realize that they can up their stock in value by medaling at an Olympics. Then the Frank Warrens of this world will put his hand in his pocket.”
Promoter Warren has managed some of the country’s best boxers and looks after Khan.
Gavin has already decided to turn professional after Beijing but Saunders has indicated that he wants to stick around for the 2012 London Games.
“To box at home in an Olympic Games in your own country would be massive,” Edwards said. “Amir Khan was unknown outside of boxing before Athens. When he came back everybody in the country and half the world knew who he was...and remember he won a silver medal not a gold.”
With business at amateur clubs booming and the sport finding its way back into schools as education chiefs search for ways to instill some discipline in the country’s youth, boxing’s popularity looks set to grow.
“It’s mainstream again now,” said Edwards. “The profile is right up there. When you look at the value for money Sport England are getting from their investment, it’s second to none.”
With Khan winning silver four years ago and heavyweight Audley Harrison gold in 2000, Edwards is no stranger to Olympic success and is hungry for more.
“I’ve got a record to live up to. I had a 50 percent success rate in Sydney and 100 percent in Athens, so now I‘m putting my chin on the line,” he said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)