BAGUIO CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Delfin Boholst is training for the Olympics — the London Olympics.
The former rice farmer from the Philippines failed to win a boxing slot for this year’s Beijing Games in a final qualifying tournament in Kazakhstan and now punishes himself with grueling four-hour workouts, six days a week, in the hope of redemption in 2012.
“After Kazakhstan, my morale sank to the very bottom of the sea,” Boholst told Reuters during a break after three rounds in the ring at the national training camp in Baguio, a mountain resort city north of Manila.
“I wanted to bury my head somewhere. But, fortunately, we did not have time to sulk and lick our wounds, we were immediately sent back to training as soon as we unpacked our bags,” said the 23-year-old light welterweight (64 kg).
The Philippines’ reputation as a regional boxing powerhouse has been battered by its dismal performance in the qualifying rounds for Beijing.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, only one boxer, light flyweight Harry Tanamor, will represent the Philippines at the Games, compared to the usual turnout of around five.
The sport’s difficulties are rooted in the country’s sluggish economic performance. While fast-growing neighbors such as China, Thailand and India poured funding into the ring, the Philippines, mired in debt, has retrenched.
“Our boxing standard stayed almost stagnant for so long and allowed our neighbors in Asia to catch up and even overtake us. Look at China and India, they are now dominating the field. We used to make them our punching bags, now they humiliate us,” said Roel Velasco, one of the Philippines coaches.
Boxers in the national training pool get a daily food allowance of 350 pesos ($8.33) and a living allowance of not more than 8,000 pesos a month.
Velasco, who won a bronze medal in the light flyweight division in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said that was what he was getting in the 1990s.
“How would you expect our boxers to fight better? They could not always fight with their hearts, they need something in their stomachs, too,” he said.
Since their first Summer Games in 1924, the Philippines have won two silver and three bronze medals in boxing, their most successful Olympic sport, and desperately want a first gold.
It could be a long time coming.
The Philippines won their last Olympic medal in Atlanta in 1996 courtesy of Mansueto Velasco, a sailor from the Philippine Navy, who lost to a Bulgarian in the final of boxing’s light flyweight (48 kg) division.
Ronald Chavez, another former Olympic boxer on the coaching staff, said the country was losing some of its brightest talent to professional promoters, who offered fast cash and instant fame.
In a country where nearly half the population live on $2 or less a day, boxing has become an easy and popular ticket out of poverty.
Youths are inspired by the success of current WBC world super featherweight champion Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao and of Gabriel “Flash” Elorde four decades ago.
Elorde held the WBC and WBA super featherweight titles for most of the 1960s and was the first Asian to be inducted into the New York-based International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993, eight years after he died of lung cancer.
Monico Puentevella, head of the Philippines’ contingent to August’s Beijing Olympics, said boxing officials were taking advantage of Pacquiao’s popularity to overhaul the sport, starting with the hiring of two Cuban coaches earlier this year.
“It’s about time to modernize and benefit from the advances of new sports technology,” Puentevella said.
“The Cubans arrived too late to help our boxers win slots in Beijing but they may be just in time to prepare us for the 2012 Olympics in London.”
China, India and Thailand have all benefited from Cuban expertise and the Philippines are hoping to build their long-term grassroots amateur boxing programme with the help of the new coaches, focusing on cultivating a pool of talent from children aged 10-12 years.
As for the London Games, the country’s pool of national boxers — 36 men — have gone back to daily five-km runs, endless jumping rope and weight lifting and regular sparring to condition themselves.
They are joined by 10 women, whom Philippine officials think could hold the key to the country’s first Olympic gold once they are allowed to compete.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned down the idea of including women’s boxing in Beijing but said the sport’s authorities could resubmit a proposal for inclusion at the London Games.
Three Philippine women have won gold in the South East Asian (SEA) Games since 2003 and some have won bronze medals in world boxing championships.
“The country’s lucky to have very focused and determined boxers,” Velasco said. “They need just a little more motivation, but lots of attention and support from the government to make them really competitive.”
Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Clare Fallon